Fostering an Active Flying Club in the Modern Era

Written by Dave Scott A cause-and-effect approach to understanding thriving and declining club trends Photos by the author, Jay Smith, and Jenni Alderman As seen in the May 2016 issue of Model Aviation.

Starting approximately 15 years ago, many model airplane clubs began seeing a decline in membership—fewer new people were joining and interested visitors to the flying field often did not return. This trend continues today. Whenever this subject is brought up, the usual justifications related to the economy and peoples’ changing interests are given as to why this is a sign of the times, as if nothing can be done about it. I visit many clubs throughout the Midwest and elsewhere on behalf of my flight school, and despite the standard reasons people give to justify their club’s decline, I know of several clubs that are currently thriving, and more importantly, that have a large percentage of members who actively fly. Whether large or small, near cities or in rural settings, the successful clubs that I visit all display similar, easily copied characteristics that the struggling clubs I visit do not. I want to highlight the tendencies that are on display at clubs that do well at acquiring and retaining members, and conversely, why others are in a state of decline. By doing so, I hope to present several easily adopted solutions to help stem the decline and promote club growth. Those who feel that the membership has no role in their club’s decline will probably take offense to some club behaviors that I will shine a light on, whereas I’m certain that those who are members of thriving clubs will think this article merely states the obvious. Before deciding that what works for other clubs won’t matter because your club members are older and you can’t get new members, for the sake of discussion, let’s say that your club sponsors a model display at a mall or a hardware store. As a result, five enthusiastic new people show up at your flying field the following weekend, expressing interest in joining the club and flying. Is your club prepared to accommodate them and retain them as members? Or is your club stuck in a pattern of telling newcomers that they’ll first have to learn how to set up an airplane then, depending of the availability of the instructor(s), they will have to expect some crashes and make a number of trips to the flying field before they’ll be able to fly on their own? To veteran club members, that sounds perfectly normal; however, as many clubs are finding out, this no longer works in our instant-gratification society, where so many other activities vie for peoples’ discretionary time and promise to deliver immediate fun.

1. The first significant trait on display at successful clubs in the modern era is that their leadership constantly promotes flying! For example, when a potential new member visits the flying field, the club leaders do everything they can to get that person in the air as soon as possible, or at least ask him or her to accompany them while they fly. An interest in airplanes and flying is primarily what draws people to the hobby, and it is what RC aviation offers that they can’t get anywhere else—especially since the training requirements and cost of full-scale aviation have become prohibitive for many people. A typical busy person today enters aeromodeling to have fun, as well as to enjoy the freedom that flying represents as an escape from stress and real life. The reasons for joining a club are mainly to have access to a well-kept, dedicated flying site and access to the help of experienced modelers. The camaraderie and everything else that goes with being a club member is secondary to flying in the beginning. To the consternation of many veteran modelers, a typical RC pilot today looks at the process of setting up an airplane as mainly a means to fly, and would prefer not to spend much time working on his or her airplanes. Recognizing this, effective club leaders focus on “accentuating the positives” whenever they encounter a potential member or interested spectator. These positives include a dedicated runway from which to fly, experienced members to help answer questions, and the fact that technology is making it easier and cheaper than ever before for people to enjoy the hobby. Good club leaders are like good car salesmen who smartly pitch a car’s best features in order to elevate a person’s enthusiasm before getting into the details of price, fees, etc. Failing clubs, on the other hand, tend to jump right into bringing up dues, prohibitive rules, duties, costs, etc., whenever an interested visitor/potential member shows up at the field. They then wonder why the person never returns.

2. If the reason for the club’s existence—a dedicated environment in which to fly model airplanes—is no longer the main focal point, the primary reason to join or remain part of the club no longer exists. In these cases, the non-flying members of the club will invariably steer the club’s focus and resources to activities unrelated to flying—such as club politics—causing people who were originally drawn to the hobby for the fun of flying to have little reason to come back. There will always be conflicting interests and politics in any organization, but they are less noticeable when there’s plenty of flying taking place. For a variety of reasons, such as seldom having a plan before flying and deemphasizing fundamentals in favor of the latest technology and design, the flying skills of an average club flier typically plateau within three to five years. As a result, those who don’t become discouraged or lose interest, often turn to constantly tinkering and acquiring new equipment to get their kicks. That would be fine, but when constant tinkering is presented to an average newcomer as standard operating procedure, what he or she mainly sees is an endless series of obstacles that get in the way of flying and fun. As these perceived obstacles chip away at a newcomer’s enthusiasm, or as the result of a negative experience (such as a club member disassembling his or her airplane rather than helping get it in the air), reasonable people will start thinking about other activities that don’t involve as many hurdles. The conundrum that many clubs face today is that although some of the veteran members act as though it would take the fun out of the hobby if everything worked and nothing needed to be changed, that would be an answer to prayers for newcomers and those trying to improve their flying skills. Of course, if a newcomer is inclined toward tinkering, there is no better outlet than RC aviation. However, all too often veteran fliers forget how intimidating it is to be a newcomer and how much more there is to learn than anyone expects. The temptation to impress your novice audience by sharing the setup expertise you developed throughout many years can prove daunting to someone who entered the sport hoping to start flying right away. Effective club leaders, motivated by wanting each member to have a positive experience and thereby raise the likelihood of him or her remaining active in the club, make every reasonable effort to keep things simple and remove obstacles that would get in the way of others enjoying flying at the club field. Anytime a member brings a new airplane to the flying field, the club members should refrain from pointing out all of the things that they don’t like or would do differently. Instead they should perform the essential checks to ensure that an airplane is airworthy (such as checking the center of gravity, correct travel, batteries), and then do their best to get it into the air as soon as possible. Don’t misunderstand me. If you’re familiar with 1st U.S. R/C Flight School or my training and setup manuals and articles, you know that I’m a big proponent of doing everything possible to improve performance, and therefore the speed of learning. Even so, the reality is that many of the improvements that I make to airplanes used in my school would barely be detectable by an average club flier. My point is, whether it’s a recreational club environment or commercial RC flight school, the main thing is to get the basics correct and know that refinements only help to fine-tune airplanes that are fundamentally sound to start with. Effective leaders know that it is wise to not bring up all of the minute ways to “make things better” until a person first has a good handle on the fundamentals. What good is a slightly more-capable radio or gadget going to be if the club member hasn’t yet mastered the basic setup and operation of the equipment that he or she already has?

3. Another factor contributing to declining club membership is the tendency for people to whom everyone looks for advice to recommend the latest, greatest equipment and setups that match their own interests and ways of doing things. They should recommend what best aligns with the skills and interests of members asking for advice. It won’t matter how valid your advice is if it’s beyond the abilities of most of the members and causes them to become discouraged or give up on flying before realizing any benefit from your advice. Effective leaders try to make practical recommendations that will offer the greatest likelihood of success. Consider the E-flite Apprentice basic trainer. Veteran modelers typically advise any newcomer buying an Apprentice to forgo the basic radio offered with the airplane, and instead buy one with more features. However, the radio offered with the Apprentice is preset by the factory, so all that a novice has to do is charge the batteries and fly. Those who “upgrade” to a more-capable radio have to overcome the challenge of learning confusing terminology and how to program the new radio rather than experiencing the immediate gratification of flying. Learning to program radios has become one of the greatest challenges in the hobby, and it is often counterproductive to thrust that daunting task on any newcomer whose motivation for getting into aeromodeling was to have fun, but already has so much else to learn. Of course, at some point a fledgling pilot will have to learn to set up a model and radio, and might possibly even enjoy it, but setting the precedent of facing a complicated process of programming before flying is intimidating, and often erodes someone’s enthusiasm before even getting to fly. Despite many clubs struggling to get and keep new members, many older members continue to frown upon airplanes such as the Apprentice that utilize modern, three-axis stabilization technology aimed at making learning to fly easier and less likely to involve significant repairs. Because some of these airplanes require unconventional control techniques compared with the way a newcomer will eventually fly, veteran modelers will often frame stabilization technology as a crutch and subsequently convince the student to turn it off. What good does it do to point out that those who learn to fly with the stabilization turned on will have to learn different control techniques in the future if, before they get to that point, they become discouraged and quit? Active clubs with a high retention rate never discourage, but rather encourage, the use of anything that helps new members get to the point of being able to safely fly on their own whenever they wish. Those systems aimed at speeding up success in the air can usually be diminished or turned off as a pilot’s confidence increases. Because SAFE technology often enables new pilots to solo on the first day, it solves one of the biggest challenges that clubs have faced in the past 40-plus years: finding committed instructors who are available to train regularly.

4. One of the biggest contributors to clubs struggling to retain active fliers is the tendency of the leadership at the field to continually push members to purchase more advanced equipment and increasingly larger airplanes under the guise that doing so will help them fly better. Although that might be partially true, it has contributed to the phenomena of people leaving their clubs after four or five seasons when the hobby is no longer enjoyable. These former members no longer attend the club, but they continue to fly park flyers close to home and strictly for fun. Although the club’s more experienced members might be pitching radios with more features and claim that “bigger flies better” or espouse “what the pros use,” seldom mentioned is the additional complexity associated with those components. You can visit clubs across the country and see large numbers of people preoccupied with learning how to program their radios and operate their equipment instead of actually using it to fly! You’ll also notice that within weeks of any member giving in and getting a substantially “bigger and better” airplane, his or her attendance tends to drop off. If you question the person about it, he or she will have a list of excuses about how it’s been too windy, he or she has been too busy, and/or it’s become more convenient to fly helis and park flyers closer to home. The only thing that’s different from when the person used to come regularly to the club field is that his or her equipment became appreciably more expensive and complicated to operate, so the excitement about going to the flying field has been replaced with the fear of jeopardizing a substantial investment. We can reassure a person that the fear and anxiety does subside and that he or she will eventually enjoy an elevated sense of satisfaction. Yet for the majority of fliers who got into the sport as a fun hobby, it is rare to see someone remain active in a club when flying is no longer fun. Another important characteristic of a successful club is that the leadership never makes members feel as though they are operating inferior equipment or tries to push them to purchase equipment that is out of their comfort zone. If the members are successful with what they have, the “grass is greener” effect will eventually kick in and they’ll choose on their own to take things to the next level—or not. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! The reality is that although technology can be wonderful, it has also made people’s day-to-day lives busier. Clubs that are thriving today recognize that many people simply don’t have the time to methodically learn all of the technical aspects of the hobby the way that veteran modelers have always sought to do. Heck, many people today don’t even have a dedicated place to work on their airplanes! Rather than trying to return to the old ways, successful clubs today are open to all types of flying. They support the fact that the only/best option for many people is to fly mainly ready-to-fly setups that are easy to store and transport. I know of several clubs that attribute a large part of their decline to ready-to-fly park flyers and helicopters, which make it easier for people to fly close to home. The existence of low-cost, easy-to-fly aircraft has made it much easier for people to get into the hobby, and more people fly RC models today than ever before. That means that the pool of potential members for clubs to draw from has never been larger. When people reach the limits of what they can do with their simple park flyers, most will start looking at larger, more capable airplanes that can handle more wind, and therefore need to find larger flying fields. It’s the same as people saying to me that because it’s becoming easier for people to teach themselves, there will no longer be a need for an RC flight school. In reality, interest in the school has tripled in recent years, thanks in part to more people entering the hobby. Rather than eliminating the need for clubs, park flyers often help stem the membership decline and make it easier for more fliers to get stick time. Although it might appear to veteran members that park flyers are contributing to declining club participation, it is more likely that those clubs simply don’t offer much more than what fliers have access to closer to home.

5. Although I’m a 3-D pilot, it is easy to see that another contributor to club members losing interest in flying is the tendency of 3-D pilots to encourage those around them, no matter what their abilities, to purchase 3-D airplanes and equipment. Additionally, much of what people read and see online is also aimed at enticing pilots to pursue 3-D. The unspoken reality is that learning to fly 3-D requires such fast reflexes and endless hours of practice that many fliers will never achieve 3-D flying skills. Plus, no one mentions that the tradeoff for setting up a model for 3-D is that it generally becomes more difficult to fly. Consequently, with so many pilots basing their equipment and setup choices on flying 3-D at some point, many end up struggling or hitting a plateau, especially when the complicated process of learning to program and trim for 3-D turns out to be much easier said than done. When these realities mount, those who don’t become discouraged and quit often fly less and less, preferring instead to spend their time making changes to their equipment and getting involved in nonflying club activities. The following summarizes some of the most productive tendencies on display at many of the country’s vibrant clubs. Just remember, assuming that there is a willingness to take steps to increase flying activity at your club, not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good! That is, you can’t do everything that has proven to work for other clubs, but giving a few of these strategies a try is certainly better than doing nothing at all. • Successful clubs promote a policy of never allowing spectators to sit off to the side by themselves, but rather encourage their members to introduce themselves. If the spectators express an interest, invite them to check out the airplanes and to sit with the members. It’s counterproductive to send a new visitor/potential member home with instructions to search for the information that they’ll need to get started in the hobby. Novices don’t even know what questions to ask, so have all of the printed forms needed to join AMA and the club (even if they’ll be joining online), and, if possible, a printout of an RTF basic trainer, ready to hand to any interested spectator before he or she leaves. • When talking with a potential member, club members refrain from airing dirty laundry and tales of failure. Instead, they should accentuate the positives of how technology is making it easier to fly than ever before, and that by joining the club, he or she will have access to a dedicated flying site and experienced pilots who can offer advice when needed. • As long as a person’s equipment is airworthy, leaders of clubs with high retention rates generally hold off pointing out everything they would change or improve upon, but do their best to help that person experience the thrill of seeing his or her airplane in the air as soon as possible. • Unless it’s appropriate, leaders of active clubs avoid framing members’ equipment as inferior and trying to persuade them to purchase increasingly more complex/expensive equipment under the guise that it will make them better fliers. Instead, club leaders emphasize that the main things are to have fun within their individual comfort zones. Although good equipment is important, correct practice is much more important. (Remember, what someone might refer to as an inferior radio today would have been state of the art only a decade ago, and entirely capable of fulfilling the needs of 95% of fliers!) • Rather than promoting 3-D flying and complex 3-D equipment setups as the end-all after learning to fly, leaders of successful clubs try to offer practical recommendations based on what they feel gives each member the greatest likelihood of success, based on his or her immediate skills and interests. Effective leaders correct the impression that the route to becoming a better pilot is to try to mold yourself after the club’s best 3-D flier, but instead hype the fact that the awesome (unique) thing about the hobby is that there are so many options available, and that pilots can change their interests at any time.

My efforts to highlight these tendencies and help stem the 15-year trend of declining club membership might prove to be wishful thinking. However, I make my living in the hobby, and I fly large aerobatic airplanes that require well-maintained runways. Therefore I have more than a casual interest in clubs doing well. That noted, I want to bring up a couple of final observations. Although I’m sure there are exceptions, I know that if a club does not appoint leaders who actively fly and have a personal stake in maintaining a pilot-friendly club, club politics almost always take over until eventually so many people have been turned off that there are barely enough members to sustain the club. For a club to experience growth, it must have individuals in positions of leadership who possess the initiative and/or natural inclination (often as a result of career backgrounds) to map out a club’s mission statement, along with a step-by-step plan of action aimed at cultivating an active, fun, flying club. When people in the area hear about the club and decide to check it out, they will encounter an appealing club that looks as though it would be fun to be involved with. The reason that it takes this type of leader is because the turnaround or growth doesn’t often happen right away. Throughout the process, some members will likely try to sabotage the leadership’s efforts because, from the sidelines, they think they know better. That’s when having a plan in place helps keep things moving toward the club’s stated objectives, rather than allowing the diversions common to any group undertaking to sap everyone’s enthusiasm. There are many other things that successful clubs are doing, including building attractive websites, community involvement, etc., but it all starts with getting the basics right to foster an environment that promotes flying and encourages people to have fun and pursue their own particular interests. Have a great 2016 flying season! —Dave Scott [email protected]

About the Author

Dave Scott is a champion full-scale aerobatics competitor and an air show pilot, as well as the founder of and chief flight instructor at 1st U.S. R/C Flight School. His groundbreaking books and articles feature the accelerated training techniques and methodologies he developed while professionally instructing more than 1,700 RC pilots of all skill levels. More information about his books and school can be found at


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Dave, I think you hit the nail on the head. I'm one of those who dropped my club membership. Ironically not for any of the reasons above, but rather due to cost and distance. If I want to fly nitro, I have to pay $100 a year IN ADDITION to AMA dues, load the truck, drive 13 miles one way, and I'm rewarded with flying from a rough grass field. On the other hand, if I choose slightly smaller electrics (.25 size or below) or helos of any size, I can put that $100 into LiPos, and walk 100 yards to a small park or 200 yards to a big school field. I've easily flown double or triple the number of flights by making this switch. My point here is that I think we need to address the proximity and cost. Maybe $175 a year for AMA and club dues isn't much for you, but that's serious money for some of us.

Great article, Dave! It is a source of constant consternation to me how many of the membership "wounds" suffered by local clubs are self-inflicted. Beyond the specific points you mentioned, most clubs I've been a member of or visited are simply lacking in human warmth -- they're just not very welcoming to new-comers and visitors. I saw this happen just the other week at the club I belong to (for now -- Fly-A-Ways in the Portland, Oregon area). I was there with a few others and were treated with suspicion and hostility even though two of us were members! Granted, we tend to fly at local parks and schoolyards because the field isn't overly convenient on weeknights, so we're not known on sight. But after asking if we were members ("sure are!") no one introduced themselves, asked about what we were flying, or anything. The only thing they were interested in is getting membership dues from the two non-member visitors. As the day wore on, I noticed four different sets of parents and kids show up and get completely ignored by the every-day members. My friend and I greeted them, answered questions, etc., but no one else even made an effort. I was embarrassed for the club and for the AMA's reputation. It was as though the club field -- and model flying, by extension -- was viewed as a "safe house" that was only accessible to the elect few. To be fair, there are other members who would not have acted that way, but the dozen or so who were there huddled in a group, casting malicious glances at the visitors and newcomers while keeping their backs stiffly turned. It was a sad testament on AMA club culture. People are always grousing about what the AMA (the organization) is or isn't doing, but they don't realize that the local club members have more influence on the local health of the hobby flying community than anyone in Muncie. Best, Another Dave (no relation)

Wonderful article. I experienced some of what Dave was talking about in learning to fly and join a club myself. I ended up teaching myself (thru much time and expense!) before joining a club. Been flying for five years and in a club two- some great people in the club but often times the club is more concerned about the status quo, the old way than moving forward to reach the new, younger flyers! Why make it difficult? Its like they are jealous that it is easier now, they feel that is not fair or something. It seems to me that since it is easier and cheaper to fly now we should have more members, not fewer. I for one will take to heart and put into practice the ideas mentioned here for promoting flying and club membership. Thank you.

Great read. I fly at a few fields that are located within Colorado state parks in the Denver area (Cherry Creek and Chatfield). These flying sites are both associated with clubs but do not require club memberships to fly them (they do require an AMA membership of course). To be frank, the club members at these sites are the blue hairs sitting on the picnic tables, smoking cigarettes and laughing at rough landings and yelling at people for breaking pit, taxi and pattern rules. The people that are actually doing the flying are middle-aged, interested in the hobby, happy to help and they are not club members for the most part. It's bizarre.

I have never been to Dave Scott's flight school, and I have no affiliation with it in any way, but I can tell you that the principles of training and flying that he presents really work. When I began to fly R/C many years ago, I started with a club instructor by being hooked up to a buddy box and just beginning to fly. I had no idea about what was making the plane fly or why it was behaving in the way that it was. My skill levels never progressed much beyond taking off, flying around a little, and landing. Last year, I bought Dave's books "Airplane and Radio Set-up" and "One Week to Solo" and started applying the principles that he teaches. I immediately began to improve and I now enjoy flying several times per week. If your club has a formal flight school (and if you intend to attract new member you really should have one) I suggest that you purchase the above two books from the !st U.S. R/C Flight School web site and use them in training your new members. Nothing makes for an active club like pilots who feel confident and look forward to flying their models.

Perhaps you could tell us what in your opion is the Role of the CFI at a model flying field (australia nsw)

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