Flying club encounters turbulence in shared plane venture
Shortly after takeoff, the Smoky Mountain Flying Club is having to re-route its course.
The flying club nearly lost an $11,000 non-refundable down payment on an airplane after a deal with investors went bad.
The club members put up the down payment in hopes of buying a plane they could share amongst themselves, as many do not have their own aircraft. Investors were going to put up the rest of the money to buy the plane, then recoup it from club members who would pay to rent the plane.
After forking over the $11,000, however, the investors fell through, and the club faced losing its non-refundable down payment.
Jim Sottile, the club’s vice president, borrowed money from a friend to pull off the purchase, but now has to raise money to pay back his friend — or the club will have to sell the plane and use the proceeds to pay back the friend. That would leave the club back at ground zero with no plane for members to fly.
“If someone doesn’t show up, we’ll probably have to sell it and start from scratch,” Sottile said. The club is based in Macon and Jackson counties.
The club had been scouting an airplane for months before purchasing the Evektor, a light sport aircraft, from a private owner in South Carolina last month.
The club’s president, Tom Stovall, set up a company called Jackson County Aviation, for the purpose of buying the plane and then renting to out to club members and flying students. Stovall had outside investors of his own, who he said backed out and left him unable to pull off the transaction.
“I had a couple of investors go sideways, so that threw a little thing into the deal,” Stovall said.
Fearful of losing the club’s down payment, Sottile said he had to step in and take out a nearly $40,000 personal loan to help purchase the $67,000 lightly used plane in full. However, that was only a temporary measure, and he is hoping someone will step in to either buy the plane outright or lease it from the club in a matter of weeks.
Stovall said the issue will be taken up at the club’s meeting this weekend, and he was hesitant to talk in further detail until after the members met. He said his company was still looking for an investor but that things remained “up in the air.”
Meanwhile, the plane remains grounded at the Jackson County Airport.
However, Sottile remains optimistic that someone with a passion for aviation and a mind for business will invest in the venture and turn it into a profitable one. The club already has a solid member base of 20, and more who will sign on if the club has its plane situation on sure footing. Only a few of the current members own planes, Sottile said, and most are looking for one on hand for leisure trips.
Sottile also thinks, with the plane hangared near Western Carolina University, that a large contingent of student pilots would pay for flight lessons and for a ride in the airplane.
“We need somebody who wants to run the operation and make a few bucks,” Sottile said.
Furthermore, Sottile said the greatest appeal of the club’s new airplane is that it’s a light sport aircraft, meaning to fly it a pilot only needs the light sport license, not a more rigorous standard aviator’s license. Sottile said the light sport license requires a driver’s license and airtime.
The limitations are that the plane can only go up with one passenger and must be flown on clear days under 140 miles per hour. But the good news is it’s much more friendly for a beginner or hobby pilot.
The light sport aircraft has been the bucking the trend in recent years. As the overall number of new pilots has been on the decline since 2002, the field of light sport has been growing in popularity.
The only thing that’s bugging Sottile now is that no one in the club can take the shiny plane into the air while the financial details are been worked out.
“It’s a beautiful aircraft,” Sottile said. “We’re dying that we can’t fly this thing.”