Through Wingnuts Flying Club, aspiring pilots at Richmond Executive Airport can enjoy the lowest-cost flight training in the area.
The 54-member club, founded in 1980, extends a special offer to student pilots. For a modest initiation fee and low monthly dues, students can train in the club’s 2005-model Cessna 172S for a low hourly rate. Fees for club-approved instructors are extra.
For more experienced pilots, the club fills a niche between renting and owning. Regular members must be approved by the club and buy a share from a departing member; sellers are listed on the club’s website. They have access not only to the Cessna, but also to a 2007 Diamond DA-40 and a 2006 Columbia 350.
“We want people who’ll participate in club events,” said longtime member Jake LaBello. “You have to come to at least two meetings before you can be voted in. And after you’ve joined if you’ve not been to a meeting in a while, you’ll probably get a phone call from an officer encouraging you to come.”
The club meets twice monthly and every meeting includes an entertainment or education program. Many former members become social members so that they can continue to enjoy the programs, said John Sharp, who’s a five-year member and the club’s current secretary.
Sharp said the club is a good way to get started in flying. He said he joined five years ago “with essentially no hours. I got all my training through the club. Now I have about 150 hours and I’m working toward an instrument rating.”
“The club is very good for people wanting to move up and get ratings,” LaBello added. “You have fellow members who’ll encourage you and fly with you. You’ll find lots of mentors in the club.”
One of the newest members, Sean Francis, joined earlier this year soon after gaining his private pilot license.
“I did my research and liked the program at Wingnuts,” he said. “It’s a larger group, with more airplanes and the monthly fee is very low. I wanted not just access to airplanes, but access to people.”
Francis, who has about 70 hours now, said he flies the 172 and hopes to check out in the club’s Diamond. “I’m looking for reasons to fly as much as I can,” he said. With family in both Carolinas, he hopes aviation can bring him closer.
LaBello said he joined the club as a student pilot “in about 2000.” He later earned an instrument rating.
LaBello said the club’s pricing philosophy is to cover aircraft fixed costs through monthly dues and variable costs through the hourly rate. This spreads the fixed cost over the whole membership and gives members an incentive to fly.
“Our utilization goal is 250 to 300 hours a year, but we don’t always achieve that,” LaBello continued. “We like longer flights, but with training, a lot of the flights are shorter.”
While much of the flying is local, members can also book aircraft for trips. The club uses an on-line booking system and LaBello said “there’s a lot of availability.
“If somebody has reserved a plane when you want it, you can book as a backup. The first guy might cancel because of weather, but maybe the weather is better where you want to go. And you’re in a club, so you know everybody. You might call up and say, ‘where are you going? I might want to go with you.’”
Wingnuts is the only club of its type on the field, though there are various partnerships that own single airplanes.
LaBello recalls a lot of fun flying with fellow Wingnuts members. “Three of us used to book a plane every weekend and take turns flying. That way you could get three hours experience for one hours’ cost.
“We’d just fly around Virginia. We’d go places with a restaurant on the field or a courtesy car that you could borrow. We often went to Jamestown-Williamsburg or to Wakefield, where you could call the Virginia Diner and they’d send a car for you. At Chrisfield, Maryland, the airport manager’s wife would make cakes and leave them out with a contributions box. I think he just wanted to increase visitor traffic.”
With many different pilots, many of whom don’t fly often, club airplanes have to be sturdy and well-maintained, LaBello acknowledged. Despite the club’s training and currency requirements, breakage sometimes happens. “We just insure for it.”
Today the club’s airplanes are 12 years old or newer and Dominion Aviation performs all the maintenance. “They [Dominion] have been great,” LaBello said. “We used to have maintenance done all over the place and we did a lot of our own work. Now we don’t even change the oil. We leave it to professionals who do it every day and keep up with the ADs and paperwork.”
Steve Slight, the club’s president, said the near-term goals are first, to complete the ADS-B installations that will be required after 2019, and then “to get people flying more. Not every member flies consistently. I don’t have the key, but that’s a goal for next year.”
Beyond that, he continued, “we need a strategic plan. What direction do we want to go with our fleet and our procedures, and on what schedule? That’s an objective for next year.”
Wingnuts and its airplanes have evolved through the years, but it’s kept its focus on making flying sociable, affordable and fun.