Fractional ownership helps keep flying clubs in the air
Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 11:22 p.m.
MIAMI — Most weekends, Larry Ploucha and a few fellow pilots hop into their planes and fly an hour to eat breakfast or lunch.
The meal may cost $5, but the tab for the trip can top $100 apiece. Yet it's worth it for the members of the Bonanza Flying Club, who share in the cost of owning and maintaining two small planes, said Ploucha, the club's president and a member for 22 years.
"All I can tell you is there are golfers, tennis players and all manner of sports and hobbies people have," said Ploucha, 57, a lawyer. "And there is a small group that feels that flying is the ultimate freedom. And that is the group that is attracted to our club."
Before fractional ownership became the new buzzword, before the Marquis Jet Card appeared on The Apprentice, there were flying clubs, which bring together a limited number of member pilots to share the ownership of planes.
And they have endured in Florida, which has the second-highest number of pilots of any state, after California.
An alternative to occasionally renting a plane or owning one outright, the nonprofit clubs seem to attract mostly professional men — doctors, lawyers, bankers, airline pilots, engineers and small-business owners, as well as retirees.
Their ages range from the 20s to the 70s, or beyond.
"It's basically people who want access to good airplanes without the hassle of owning the plane," said Larry Mellgren, 64, president of Pompano Senior Squadron Flying Club, based at Pompano Beach Air Park.
Besides the benefit of splitting the high cost of purchasing and maintaining the planes, club memberships can also be easier to sell than aircraft.
"One of the distinct advantages is that if you stop flying, you move, or you lose medical certification and you are no longer able to fly, it's easier to get out of a club than to sell your share of a partnership aircraft or to sell (a plane)," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
"The only drawback is that especially with larger clubs, the more people using an aircraft, the less availability for the aircraft," he said.
Yet that lack of availability is mitigated when clubs like Bonanza and Pompano Senior Squadron have more than one plane, members say.
At other clubs, memberships are not salable, but tend to have more members, which further lowers the cost.
Panair Flying Club, founded 50 years ago by the employees of Pan American World Airways in New York and now based at Kendall-Tamiami Airport, has about 300 members, said Wesley Brady, a flight instructor who is on the club's board.
Panair has four Cessna aircraft and does its own maintenance. It charges about $260 to join, $20 a month in fees and $35 an hour to fly, plus fuel. And you don't have to be a pilot. You can take lessons at the club once you join, Brady said.
In general, flying clubs may make the most financial sense for pilots who want to fly more than 50 hours a year, Dancy said.
For those who fly less than that, it can be more economical to just rent an aircraft, he said.
However, when renting, a built-in profit margin goes to the owner, and the planes are often restricted by insurance to flying within the United States, Mellgren said.
The Pompano Senior Squadron, which is limited to 45 members, owns three planes: a Cherokee 6, a Piper Archer and a Cessna 172SP.
Founded more than 25 years ago, it charges $1,700 to get in — $1,450 of which is refundable when you leave. In addition, members pay $120 a month to cover fixed expenses, plus hourly charges of $70 to $100 per hour of flight time, said Mellgren, who sells billing technology to doctors' offices and has been a club member for 16 years.
The allure, Mellgren said, is access without ownership, as well as the sense of accomplishment and mental challenge.
"It's the thrill and the beauty of being able to fly over the Everglades and see a part of Florida that few people ever get to see," he said.
The club experienced a tragic crash on June 23, 2004, that killed a club pilot and passenger. Another passenger was seriously injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash was caused by the pilot's inadequate preflight planning — the engine ran out of gas.
But the club's members have continued flying.
"It's like when you drive down I-95 — you don't stop driving because you see someone get killed," Mellgren said.
The Bonanza Flying Club, based at Kendall-Tamiami Airport, is one of South Florida's oldest, incorporated in 1964.
The club is limited to 25 members, who currently pay approximately $10,000 to join the club (which is salable at a market rate), $125 in monthly dues, and $75 or $85 per hour plus fuel to operate one of the two Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine piston planes.
"Some members take them on trips, some use them in business travel, others fly out to a destination just for the fun of flying," Ploucha said.
The club's planes, which were built in 1964 and 1979, were known as the Cadillacs of single-engine aircraft and are fairly fast, flying close to 200 miles an hour, Ploucha said.
"This is not a club for a fresh-minted private pilot," he said. "It's for someone with a few hundred hours of experience."
Raimund Ege, a computer science professor at Florida International University and a club member for six years, has flown the Bonanza on several vacations, including taking his wife and two children to North Eleuthra for a week.
Club membership is "absolutely" worth it, he said.
"If I rent an airplane, I cannot rent an airplane like that," Ege said. "The difference between a Bonanza and a Cessna is a Cessna is like a little Chevy versus a Porsche."
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