Patty Wagstaff (right) with air show pilot Debbie Gary in Anchorage at a meeting of the Alaska chapter of the Ninety-Nines.
I've never thought of myself as a joiner. The parochial schools I went to as a child might have had clubs, but I don't remember them and was never encouraged to join anything. There were no cheer squads, and certainly, I had nothing in common with the stamp collectors. The only club my parents belonged to was the country club, and I tended to think of joiners as geeks, people I couldn't relate to. But, all of that changed when I started flying.
While aviation is a pretty cool club on its own, I discovered that there's something important about joining a wider circle of people with common interests, a similar goal and often simply to socialize. The aviation groups I've belonged to have played an important part in my career as a pilot. When I first started out, they provided me with encouragement and support, and helped create my identity as a pilot. In effect, because of the groups I've joined, I have an instant family wherever I go.
The first club I joined was the Alaska chapter of the International Aerobatic Club (IAC). This was natural because I was all about aerobatics, or at least I thought I was. I joined before I had even taken aerobatic lessons. In any case, I knew about IAC and found locals who were passionately involved in aerobatics, hence a lot of close friendships ensued. Along with my family, the friends I made through IAC gave me the support and encouragement I needed, and helped bolster my self-confidence. They encouraged me to go for it when I talked about entering my first aerobatic competition and cheered me on at my first air show. The more experienced members gave me advice when I needed it.
As I started traveling for air shows and competitions, I found a social network through other IAC chapters wherever I went, giving me knowledge of the local area, advice and help finding hangar space. And, when I started basing my airplane in Tucson, I quickly joined the local chapter and made instant good friends.
When I was invited to join the Alaska chapter of the Ninety-Nines (www.ninety-nines.org), an organization for women pilots established in 1929 to provide support and advancement for women in aviation, I had a bit of a struggle. I wondered why I'd want to join a women-only organization when I was against sexism of any kind. Ironically, I found that this turned out to be the very reason it was so important to join. I knew very well that the airplane doesn't know whether a male or female is piloting it, but not everyone understood that. Women as a minority need support and mentoring from their sisters! I found a group of wonderful people who understood the issues surrounding women in aviation, loved to fly and knew how to have a good time. I'm still a member of the Alaska chapter of the Ninety-Nines.
In the early '90s, when Women in Aviation International (www.wai.org) was started, I had no hesitation in getting involved. Groups like the Ninety-Nines and WAI have played a big part in advancing and encouraging women in getting their licenses for recreation or careers, giving them scholarships, magazines and networking opportunities that didn't exist in the past. WAI has grown from a few supporters to thousands of members and a world-class conference each year, and I'm proud to be a small part of that. Their smaller chapters around the world provide members with an ongoing way to stay involved and meet people in their region. I believe it's important for women in aviation to join these clubs and organizations to help support each other.
Being with like-minded people who took my interest in aviation seriously provided support and played an important part in my growth and progress. This helped me understand what my identity as a pilot was and what my goals would turn out to be. While the IAC, in particular, has been central in my life, there are clubs and associations that are pertinent to everyone's journey in aviation, whatever their interest or orientation. We all have an interest in aviation, either because we fly or because our spouse flies, and we're probably already a member of AOPA—or should be—but beyond that, we often have special interests based on region, type of flying, type of equipment we fly, gender and even race. There are a lot of clubs and associations to choose from, and they range from airplane-type clubs, gender-based clubs, volunteer organizations, and regional and local flying clubs. It's pretty easy to let your fingers do the walking on the Internet to find what you're looking for.
You can join a "type" club depending on what you fly. Most of the people I know who fly Beechcraft Bonanzas or Barons belong to the American Bonanza Society (ABS, www.bonanza.org). ABS is an exceedingly well-organized group, with a magazine, online forums, fly-ins, formation flying clinics and maintenance training. One of the things I look forward to every year is seeing dozens of Bonanzas lined up on the grass at Oshkosh after the B2Osh—Bonanzas to Oshkosh—fly-in. It's pretty spectacular to see 100-plus Bonanzas and Barons fly in the world's largest gathering of aviation and the world's largest civilian formation of aircraft.
If you don't fly a Bonanza, no worries, there's a club for you: Check out the Cessna Pilots Association (www.cessna.org), the Piper Owner Society (www.piperowner.org) or the American Yankee Association (www.aya.org). If you're a warbird owner, the EAA Warbirds of Ameria (www.warbirds-eaa.org) is for you. Plus, there's always the Aeronca Lovers Club (for lovers or Aeroncas—I'm not sure which). Regardless of your flavor of airplane, you can probably find a club for you. For a list, go to: www.airaffair.com/Library/type_clubs.html.
Another way to broaden your horizons is to find your state or region's Aero Club. Most states have their own Aero Club, such as the Florida Aero Club or Alaska Airmen's Association, and there are also a lot of regional and local airport flying clubs. These clubs provide more than just social opportunities. They're often powerful lobbying organizations that give pilots and airplane owners a voice in local or regional airport politics. The St. Augustine Airport Pilots Association (SAAPA) is a good example. I know for a fact that the St. Augustine-St. Johns County Airport Authority, which runs the Northeast Florida Regional Airport (formerly St. Augustine Airport), is in close touch with SAAPA on most matters affecting the local pilots.
You might even be interested in joining a flying club, or perhaps even starting one, to get better rates on rental aircraft, mainly due to the obscenely high cost of avgas. You can get information at: www.aopa.org/Pilot-Resources/Flying-Clubs. This is a supremely good idea, and I hope there are a lot of people who pick up the ball and turn this into a reality, like they've done in Europe, where flying clubs are very popular.
Finally, there are a lot of aviation groups on Facebook, but since you're just clicking away, and don't have to get off your butt and actually meet any of the people or get involved with them, these groups don't really count. You have to actually go out and meet people and go to meetings, or at least go to the parties.
If you're considering joining a club, you might ask what's expected of you. Since most of these clubs are run by volunteers, if you're as busy as I am, let the chapter/club know beforehand what they can expect of you with regard to your time. You don't have to attend every meeting or volunteer for every activity. Do what you can, and if you don't have a lot of time, you can contribute in other ways by offering your services such as writing a newsletter, taking pictures or bringing in new members. All a group really expects of you is that you grace them with your presence.
There are a lot of ways to have a good time in aviation, and being around simpatico friends makes it all the better. We are inherently social beings, and getting together with like-minded people can be joyful and inspiring. A word I've heard often in IAC describes it best: camaraderie —companionship, conviviality, brotherhood, esprit de corps.