A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

January 2015 

ABOUT FLYING CLUBS AND OUR NEED TO KEEP THEM ALIVE

 

At our flying club in Vernon, B.C. we stay active all year. Obviously, there is not as much flying in winter months as there is in the summer, but the health of the club is defined then more by the social activities. With less than one hundred members, it is diversified, active, dynamic and interesting. The core activity is actually not the flying, but the coffee hour each and every morning at the clubhouse. The normal average attendance is about one to two dozen members, mostly the retired pilots. Like most flying organizations in the country, the age group in this club tends to lean to the senior side. Of the relatively younger fellows, several are still involved in working at their careers and at their businesses.

We are not a flying school and there is no club airplane for rent, however the majority of members are aircraft owners. The number varies between fifty and sixty who have their own airplanes. At last count, at least eighteen RV’s are at home on this airport, some still under construction, but most are flying.

As with any organization, it takes a certain amount of money to operate a flying club. Expenses to maintain a clubhouse include taxes, mortgage, utilities and insurance. The club is also committed to a few community services. Members’ annual dues are the biggest source of income, but we host various fund-raising and community events through the year. Every flying club in the country seems to rely on functions such as pancake breakfasts, fly-ins, bar-b-ques, and social gatherings to help out with their expenses. B.C. pilots have for many years come to know that Vernon puts on the best “rust remover” seminar in the area. Every spring in May the club hosts knowledgeable speakers presenting aviation and safety talks and discussions. Members here also work to gather items for an annual storage locker auction. And donations come from a few sources, including families whose children have been part of our COPA for Kids event.

We are very fortunate to be situated at an airport with supportive management. The businesses on the field are good to deal with, the security is efficient yet reasonable, and the general public for years has not had a problem with aviation in their community. However, we may be experiencing the first wave of change in public acceptance of this airport. We’re “coming of age” with the rumor of disgruntled neighbors taking up a campaign against the noise. The problem is not uncommon, and as airports grow, new business is almost inevitable. When there are more airplanes flying, the sound level goes up too. We know that there is less flying in the private sector, but as the economy improves, so too does commercial aviation. Even without scheduled airline service, many airports are home to glider operations, training schools, FBO’s, parachute businesses and charter companies, all producing their own “airplane noise”. Even as the flying clubs are shrinking, we all face the same challenges in protecting our freedom to fly.

As a former member of two other flying clubs, and from regular reading of newsletters published by many more, I know we’re not unusual or outstanding in any way. Our members share common interests, either building, flying or just similar backgrounds. We have retired military and airline pilots, bush and charter pilots, along with a couple of former aviation business operators. Most are private pilots however, who simply like to fly for the fun of it. Our fly-outs tend to be spontaneous and weather dependent. The fly-ins are well organized. The feeling of camaraderie is highly defined in this club, and it’s not difficult to find parts or help from someone who will volunteer when the need arises. The single, most serious concern expressed by most pilots is that we’re all getting older, and new younger people are just not signing up. There is a fear that flying clubs have become, or are on the way to becoming “old boys clubs”, a label that tends to keep younger pilots away to an even greater degree. Many discussions have centered on how we can change this and attract a new generation, people who can bring new ideas and new life into private aviation.

Like it or not, we also face the challenge of a public perception that we’re a bunch of old, rich guys and have shut ourselves out from the general population. It tends to give flying clubs a “Fort Apache” image. Only certain folks are welcome here. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, but there’s work to be done to dispel that myth. Our public profile could always stand improvement. Part of the problem in doing it though, has to be recognized as Transport Canada and the restrictive regulations they impose on aviation. It starts with the security at most airports. As they drive by an airport, the non-flying public is met by high, chain-link fences, the back walls of hangars, search lights and security cameras. There are official looking black pick-up trucks on patrol, outfitted with flashing lights, signs and emblems on the doors, driven by uniformed guards. It is hardly a site that says “new members and public welcome”. It’s necessary in some cities and larger airports, but it seems a bit overdone at small ones too. Here at Vernon, I will admit that there are no “guards” on duty, but with all the gates and fences and signs, it’s no wonder new inquiries and memberships suffer at a flying club.

There are many suggestions out there of methods to change that perception, and to show people that flying is an achievable dream for them. The old ways when someone had the dream and was able to reach out for it by simply hanging around the field, have given way to the need for us, the pilots and flying club members to reach out. Our job description now says it is our turn to step forward to welcome and encourage them. That could include more open houses at the clubs and airports, to working with students at the flying schools. Regulations and insurance reasons often preclude offering rides to newcomers, but showing off our airplanes even in static displays is another possibility to get folks close to and comfortable with small aircraft. Airshow attendance has always been spectacular, which proves the interest in aviation is already there.

Most pilots admit to being bitten by the flying bug at a very early age. That must still be happening with kids today. It would be a good place to start as we push for the survival of aviation. COPA for Kids events held across Canada always face lineups of young aviators, eager for the right seat spot! Another and somewhat simpler way to get the kids into our domain is to encourage schools to plan field trips to the airport. And to further advance our “agenda”, it wouldn’t hurt to submit positive aviation articles to local newspapers. Good news and airplanes are not heard about much in those publications.

I surf the web quite frequently to find newsletters from other flying clubs and keep up on their activities. I would also like to encourage anyone with good, proven ideas for promoting the good things we need to get out, to respond to my e-mail address below. We can share information and keep a good impression out there for the non-flyers by working together a bit more. COPA works hard to promote and protect G.A. But there will never be a time we can simply relax and say the job is done. I believe we’re falling further and further behind. Look around the table at your next flying club meeting. Are there any “young” pilots looking back? I think we need to see some younger men and women walk through the door to welcome to the ranks.

www.vernonflyingclub.org

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