Are clubs becoming the dominant force in local flight training?
When Bakersfield Flying Club president Bill Woodbury learned that the club had been named as a top tier American flight school, he was shocked for two reasons: First, he never thought of his club as a flight school and, second, his group had never sought such notoriety.
“Of course I was pleased and honored to learn of our recognition,” said Woodbury, “but to say I was surprised is an understatement.”
The club was awarded a Flight Training Excellence Award by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) on the basis of feedback it received from club members and student pilots. Hundreds of flight schools and clubs were surveyed, and 10 were chosen to receive an award. BFC was the only flying club to gain such recognition.
“We created these awards to recognize those who instill a lifelong passion for aviation among their students, and who exemplify the best the flight training industry has to offer,” said Brittney Mikulka, senior manager of pilot community development at AOPA. “ It was clear from the customer reviews that these professionals are providing a superior flight instruction experience.”
Flying clubs have been part of the American aviation scene almost since the Wright brothers. Small groups of pilots have banded together to share the costs and joys of flying, and many clubs have flight instructors within their memberships who provide training to budding pilots.
Such training has historically been informal in nature, with each instructor determining his or her own training program. For more formal training in a more structured environment, student pilots usually turned to established flight schools or FBOs that boasted full-time staff and a larger airplane fleet.
Changing market conditions over the past three decades and the Great Recession, however, have dramatically altered the flight training landscape, with fewer flight schools and far fewer training options available to those who want to learn to fly.
As a result, flying clubs in many parts of the country have stepped in to fill the vacuum and, to best meet the needs of their memberships, have upgraded their training programs and business methods.
Today’s clubs are often very professional, provide an outstanding level of service, and are emerging as a major force in aviation education in many communities.
“Our goal is not to make money, so our programs are not as constrained as some by the bottom line,” said Woodbury.
Most clubs are operated as non-profits, so all of their resources go directly to the benefit of their members. Those benefits often include lower cost aircraft rental, free educational seminars and events, and social activities that bring the membership closer and enhance the flying experience.
Many new pilots would find the cost of flight training prohibitive if not for a local club.
“My experience [with flying clubs] has been that the team approach to training and the club-like atmosphere make everybody better at what they do,” said Donna Webster, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and a founding member of the BFC. “Instructors tend to be independent, not employees of their clubs, and show a voluntary dedication to being the best there is. It’s really a formula that is keeping costs in check while changing the whole industry for the better.”
Veteran flight instructor and best-selling aviation author Rod Machado agrees.
“I believe that flying clubs will be the means by which more and more people will earn their pilot certificates at an affordable price,” says Machado. “Anyone looking to minimize his or her training expense should take a serious look at joining a flying club.”
While reducing costs is an important factor for many aspiring pilots, safety remains at the top of the priority list. Many clubs have formed close relationships with the FAA and industry groups with the objective of improving the flight training experience and enhancing safety.
“I shopped around quite a bit before choosing my local club to take training,” said Dave Long, new BFC club member.
He started training over 15 years ago, but took an extended break.
“Sometimes life gets in the way of flying,” he joked.
“I looked at the local flight schools and talked to them at length,” he says, “but settled on the club to complete my training because of the vibe and the overall quality of the experience.”
Long will be completing his training soon, and has been so inspired by his time at the club that he now plans to become a flight instructor to share his love of the skies with others.
“I can definitely see myself doing this for a long time,” he said.
Clubs overall have an outstanding safety record, often surpassing that of traditional flight schools. AOPA actively fosters the development and improvement of flying clubs by providing them tools and an information-sharing venue for the exchange of ideas and best practices. AOPA also maintains a listing of flying clubs around the country, making it easier than ever to get in touch with a local group.
Says Machado, “If one isn’t available in your area, then consider starting one.”