Fostering a More Active Flying Club in the Modern Era - Part 1
Starting approximately 15 years ago, many model airplane clubs started seeing a decline in membership, fewer new people joining, and interested visitors to the flying field often not returning. This trend continues to this day. 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 a lot of clubs throughout the Midwest and elsewhere on behalf of my flight school, and despite all the standard reasons people give to justify their club’s decline, I know of several clubs that are currently thriving, and most importantly have a large percentage of members that actively fly. Whether large or small, near cities or rural, the successful clubs that I visit all display very similar (easily copied) characteristics that the struggling clubs I visit do not, if not the opposite. The aim of this 2-part article is therefore to highlight the tendencies 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.
Of course, those who feel that the membership has no role in their club’s decline will probably take offense to some of the 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 anyone decides 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 sponsor’s a model display at a mall or hardware store. As a result, 5 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 thereby 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 can expect some crashes and to make any number of trips to the flying field before they’ll be able to fly on their own. Of course, to the veteran members of the club that all sounds perfectly normal. However, as many clubs are finding out, that no longer works in today’s instant gratification society where so many other activities are vying for peoples’ discretionary time and promising to deliver immediate fun.
1. Thus, the first significant trait on display at successful clubs in the modern era is that their leadership is constantly promoting 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. The point is, an interest in airplanes and flying is what primarily draws people to the sport, and it is what R/C aviation offers that they can’t get anywhere else (especially since the training requirements and cost of full-scale aviation have become prohibitive for most people).
The typical busy person today enters the sport to have fun, as well as for the freedom that flying represents and as an escape from the stress of real life. The reason for joining a club is mainly to have access to a well kept dedicated flying site and access to more experienced modelers for help. The camaraderie and everything else that goes with being a club member is always secondary to flying at the beginning. Furthermore, to the consternation of many veteran modelers, the typical R/C pilot today looks at the process of setting up an airplane as mainly a means to fly, and would prefer to not spend a lot of time working on their airplanes.
Recognizing all this, effective club leaders focus on “accentuating the positives” whenever they encounter a potential member or interested spectator, such as, a dedicated runway to fly off of, 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 sport. I.e., they’re like any good car salesmen who smartly pitches the cars best features in order to elevate a person’s enthusiasm before getting into the weeds 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, and then wonder why the person never came back.
2. It has to be said that if the reason for the club’s existence (a dedicated environment to fly model planes) becomes 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 majority wing of the club will invariably steer the focus and resources of the club to activities not related to flying, such as club politics and alike, causing people who were originally drawn to the sport to have fun flying to have little reason to come back. Of course, there will always be conflicting interests and politics in any organization, but they are far less noticeable when there’s a lot of flying taking place in the club.
Herein is the rub; For a variety of reasons, such as seldom having a plan before flying and the de-emphasizing of fundamentals in favor of the latest technology and design, the flying skills of the average club flyer typically plateau within 3-5 years. As a result, those who don’t become discouraged or lose interest often turn to constant tinkering and acquiring new equipment to get their kicks. That would be fine, except when constant tinkering is presented to the average newcomer as standard operating procedure, what they mainly see are an endless series of obstacles that get in the way of flying and fun. As these perceived obstacles chip away at their enthusiasm, or as the result of a negative experience like a club member disassembling their airplane rather than helping get it in the air, reasonable people will start thinking about other activities that don’t involve so many hurdles. The conundrum that many clubs are therefore facing today is this: While the veteran members act as though it would literally take the fun out of the hobby if everything worked and nothing needed to be changed, newcomers and those trying to improve their flying skills would consider that to be ideal.
Of course, if a newcomer is himself inclined toward tinkering, he won’t find a better outlet than R/C aviation. However, all too often veteran flyers forget how intimidating it is to be newbie and how much more there is to learn than anyone expects. Thus, the temptation early on to impress your newbie audience by sharing the setup expertise you developed over many years can prove highly daunting for the newcomer who entered the sport hoping to start flying right away.
Therefore, effective club leaders, motivated by wanting each member to have a positive experience and thereby raise the likelihood of them remaining active in the club, make every reasonable effort to keep things simple and remove obstacles that would get in the way of people enjoying flying at the club field. Consequently, anytime a member brings a new airplane to the flying field, the leadership refrains from pointing out all the things they don’t like or would do differently, and instead performs the essential checks to ensure that the plane is airworthy (e.g., CG, correct travels, batteries), and then does 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 speed of learning. Even so, the reality is that many of the improvements that I make to the planes used in the school would barely be detectable by the average club flyer. So the point is, whether it’s a recreational club environment or commercial R/C flight school, the main thing is to get the basics correct, knowing that refinements only help to fine tune airplanes that are fundamentally sound to start with. Hence, effective leaders know that it is not wise to bring up all the minute ways to “make things better” until a person first has a good handle on the fundamentals. I.e., what good is a slightly more capable radio or gadget going to be if the majority of club members haven’t yet mastered the basic setup and operation of the equipment they already have!
3. Another factor contributing to declining club membership is the tendency of the people that everyone looks to for advice to recommend the latest-greatest equipment and setups that line up more with their own interests and ways of doing things, rather than what best lines up with the skills and interests of the members asking for advice. The problem is it won’t matter how valid your advice is if it’s beyond the abilities of the most of the membership and causes them to become discouraged or give up on flying before realizing any benefit from your advice. On the other hand, effective leaders try to make practical recommendations that they feel will give each member the greatest likelihood of success (sometimes for the simple reason that they’re busy and wish to focus on their own stuff rather than having to continually correct peoples’ mistakes).
Consider the E-flite Apprentice basic trainer; Veteran modelers typically advise any newbie buying an Apprentice to forgo the basic radio offered with the plane, and instead buy a radio with more features. However, the radio offered with the Apprentice is pre-set by the factory, so all the newcomer has to do is charge the batteries and fly. Those who “upgrade” to a more capable radio now have to overcome the challenge of learning a lot of confusing terminology and how to program it, rather than experiencing the immediate gratification of flying. We all know that learning to program radios has taken over as one of the greatest challenges in the sport, and it is often counterproductive to thrust that daunting task on any newcomer whose motivation for getting into the sport was to have fun (and already has so much else to learn). Of course, at some point they’ll have to learn to set up a plane and radio, and possibly even enjoy it, but setting the precedent of expecting to face a complicated process of programming before flying is very intimidating for any newbie, and often erodes their enthusiasm before even getting to fly.
Furthermore, despite many clubs struggling to get and keep new members, many older members continue to frown upon airplanes like the Apprentice that utilize modern 3-axis stabilization technology aimed at making learning to fly much easier and less likely to involve significant repairs. Because some of these planes require unconventional control techniques compared to the way the newbie will eventually fly, veteran modelers will often frame stabilization technology as a crutch and subsequently convince the newbie to turn it off. However, what good does it do to point out that those who learn 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 the sport!
Conversely, active clubs today 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. Plus, those systems aimed at speeding up success in the air can usually be diminished or turned off as the pilot’s confidence increases and they’re no longer needed. Furthermore, since Safe technology often enables new pilots to solo the first day, it solves the biggest challenge facing clubs for the past 40+ years of finding committed instructors who are available to train on a regular basis.
This concludes Part 1. Next time we’ll continue highlighting the tendencies on display at clubs that continue to thrive in the modern era, and conclude with a summary list of actionable strategies aimed at stemming declining club membership and promoting growth.
Dave Scott is a champion full-scale aerobatic competitor, airshow pilot,
and founder of 1st U.S. R/C Flight School. His articles and books feature
the training techniques he developed during the professional instruction
of over 1700 R/C pilots of all skill levels. More information about
his books and flight school can be found at http://www.rcflightschool.com/