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Fostering a More Active Flying Club in the Modern Era - Part 2

By Dave Scott. Owner/Instructor, 1st U.S. R/C Flight School

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. A trend that continues to this day. That said, 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. The following article continues contrasting the tendencies on display at clubs that do well at acquiring and retaining members compared to those that have been experiencing declining membership. By doing so, I hope to present several positive strategies to help stem the decline and promote club growth. Note: If you haven’t read Part 1, you will need to do so in order to understand the full context and shifting attitudes of R/C pilots in the modern era, and why despite the economy and peoples’ changing interests, certain clubs enjoy a large percentage of members that actively fly and therefore continue to thrive.

4. One of the biggest contributors to clubs struggling to retain active flyers 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 to fly better. While that might be partially true, this has contributed to the phenomena of people leaving their clubs after 4 or 5 seasons when the sport is no longer enjoyable. FYI. These are the former members that no longer attend your club, but they continue to fly parkflyers close to home strictly for fun.

While the club’s more experienced members are pitching radios with more features, bigger flies better, and “what the pros use”, seldom brought up is the additional complexity associated with those components. Hence, one can visit clubs all across the country and see large numbers of people pre-occupied 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 into getting a substantially bigger “better” airplane, their attendance tends to drop off. If you question them about it, they’ll have a list of excuses about how it’s been too windy, they’ve been too busy and/or it’s become more convenient to fly helis and parkflyers closer to home. Yet, the only thing that’s different from when they used to attend the club field on a regular basis is that their equipment became appreciably more expensive and complicated to operate, and thus the excitement about going to the flying field has been replaced with the fear of jeopardizing their substantial investment.

We can reassure them that the fear and anxiety does subside and they’ll eventually enjoy an elevated sense of satisfaction if they stay at it. Yet, for the vast majority of flyers who got into the sport as a fun hobby, it is rare today to see someone who will remain active in the club when flying is no longer fun. Therefore, another important characteristic of successful clubs is that the leadership never makes members feel as if 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, eventually the grass is greener effect will kick in and they’ll choose on their own to take things to the next level, or not. A.k.a., if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

The new reality is that while technology can be wonderful, it has also made people’s day to day lives a lot busier. Thus, clubs that are thriving today recognize that many people simply don’t have the time to methodically learn all the technical aspects of the sport the way that veteran modelers have always sought to do (heck, a lot of people today don’t even have a dedicated place to work on their planes). So, rather than trying to return to the old ways, successful clubs in the modern era are open to all types of flying and support the fact that the only/best option for a lot of people is to fly mainly Ready-To-Fly setups that are easy to store and transport.

As an aside: I know of several clubs that attribute a large part of their decline to RTF parkflyers and helis making it easier for people to fly near home instead. On the other hand, the existence of low cost easy to fly parkflyers has also made it much easier for people to get into the sport, and thus more people are flying R/C models today than ever before. That means that the pool for clubs to draw members from has never been larger. For example, when people reach the limits of what they can do with their simple parkflyers, most guys will start looking at larger more capable airplanes that can also handle more wind, and therefore need to find a bigger flying field as well. It’s no different than people saying to me that because it’s becoming easier for people to teach themselves, there will no longer be a need for an R/C flight school. In reality, interest in the school has tripled in recent years thanks in part to more people entering the sport. Thus, rather than eliminating the need for clubs, in many cases parkflyers are helping to stem the decline and making it easier for more members to get stick time. So, although it may appear to the veteran members that parkflyers are contributing to less club participation, it is more likely that those clubs simply don’t offer much more than what flyers have access to closer to home.

5. Even though I’m a 3D pilot myself, it is easy to see that another major contributor to club members losing interest in flying is the tendency of 3D pilots to encourage those around them, no matter their ability, to purchase 3D airplanes and equipment. Add to that, much of what people read and view online is also aimed at enticing pilots to pursue 3D. The unspoken reality is that learning to fly 3D requires such lightning fast reflexes and endless hours of practice that most flyers will never achieve 3D flying skills. Plus, no one mentions that the tradeoff for setting up a plane for 3D is that it becomes more difficult to fly in general. Furthermore, due to the manufacturers’ fixation on maximizing 3D performance, planes have become so lightly constructed that the average sport flyer often can’t make it through a weekend without breaking something on landing. Consequently, with so many pilots basing their equipment and setup choices on flying 3D at some point, many end up struggling or hitting a plateau instead, especially when the complicated process of learning to program and trim for 3D turns out to be much easier said than done. When these realities mount up, those who don’t become discouraged and quit can often be seen flying less and less, preferring instead to spend their time making changes to their equipment and getting involved in non-flying club activities.

Now that all this has been said, the following is a summary list of 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, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! That is, just because you can’t do everything that has proven to work for other clubs, giving a few of these strategies a try is certainly better than doing nothing at all.

  • All successful clubs promote a policy of never allowing a spectator to sit off to the side by themselves, but rather encourages its members to introduce themselves, and if the spectator expresses an obvious interest, invite them to check out the planes and to sit with the members. Furthermore, it’s counterproductive to send a new visitor/potential member home with instructions to search for the information they’ll need to get started in the sport. Obviously, newbies don’t even know what questions to ask yet, so all the printed forms needed to join AMA and the club (even if they’ll be joining online), and if possible a printout of a RTF basic trainer, are ready to hand to any interested spectator before they leave.
  • When talking with a potential member, members refrain from airing dirty laundry and tales of failure. Instead, they accentuate the positives of how technology is making it easier to fly than ever before, and 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 hold off on pointing out everything they would change or improve upon, but do their best to help that person experience the thrill of seeing their 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 ever more complex/expensive equipment under the guise that it will make them better flyers. Instead, they emphasize that the main things are to have fun within their individual comfort zones, and while good equipment is important, correct practice is a lot more important. (Remember, what someone might refer to as an inferior radio today would have been state of the art a little over a decade ago and entirely capable of fulfilling the needs of 95% of flyers!)
  • Rather than promoting 3D flying and complex 3D equipment setups as the end all after learning to fly, leaders of successful clubs try to give practical recommendations based on what they feel gives each member the greatest likelihood of success based on their immediate skills and interests. I.e., effective leaders correct the impression that the route to becoming a better pilot is to try to mold yourself after the club’s best 3D flyer, but instead hype the fact that the awesome (unique) thing about the hobby is that there are so many different options available to pilots, and that they can change their interests any time they want.

Maybe my efforts to highlight these tendencies and help stem the 15 year trend of declining club membership will prove to be wishful thinking. However, I make my living in the sport, and I fly large aerobatic airplanes that require well maintained runways, and therefore I have much more than a casual interest in clubs doing well. That said, I have to bring up a couple final observations: Although I’m sure there are exceptions, I know that if a club does not appoint leadership that actively flies, and therefore has a personal stake in maintaining a pilot friendly club, club politics almost always takes over until eventually so many people have been turned off that there are barely enough members to sustain the club.

Furthermore, in order for a club to experience growth, it must have an individual or two in positions of leadership who possess the initiative and/or natural inclination (often as a result of their career backgrounds) to map out a club mission statement along with a step-by-step plan of action aimed at cultivating an active fun flying club. Thus, whenever people in the area hear about the club and decide to check it out, they will encounter an appealing club that looks like it would be fun to be involved with. The reason that it takes this type of leader is because the turnaround or growth often doesn’t happen right away. Consequently, 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 from sapping everyone’s enthusiasm. Of course, there are many other things that successful clubs are doing, e.g., attractive websites, community involvement, etc., but it all starts with getting the basics right of fostering an environment that promotes flying and encourages people to have fun and pursue their own particular interests.

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