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Finding general aviation absolutely anywhere

One beautiful spring Saturday we decided to drive down U.S. Route 1 to see what we could find. Somewhere very near Princeton I spotted a glider on tow climbing out. The strip was not apparent to the naked eye (this was before tablets and cellphones that could pull up a sectional and show you where you were). We slowed and turned off the highway near where we thought the pair might have launched. A winding road through green fields left us at a hangar with the door half open. Inside that hangar were an ornithopter, a hovercraft, and an assortment of other contraptions that may or may not have broken the surly bonds of Earth (I doubted any of them had ever soared to appreciable heights, though). In the back was a guy artfully repairing a glider wing. We introduced ourselves and asked where we were. And that’s how we found the Princeton Soaring Society (now the Soaring Tigers). That club formed the core of our weekend social life in New Jersey, and before we moved on we were both tow pilots and certificated glider pilots with a lifelong love for the sport.

That was a long time ago, but it taught us a valuable lesson. Aviation clubs are a great place to learn about new areas and meet new friends. We routinely use that information when we decide where to travel for vacation because, frankly, it’s fun to discover new aviation venues all over the world!

Much of recreational flying worldwide comes under the designation of sport aviation. Outside of the United States, many pilots have organized their “rental” flying via aero clubs that vary in their makeup depending on where they are located around the world. One attribute they all seem to have in common, however, is that they are excellent starting points for finding and socializing with aviation-minded individuals.

Start your pre-trip planning with the Fédération Aéronautique International, which supervises international sport aviation competitions and also promotes skill, proficiency, and safety in aeronautics worldwide. The group, headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, keeps tabs on aero clubs dedicated to sport aviation. Wherever you are headed, FAI probably has a branch.

Most general aviation airports outside of the United States and Canada are located some distance from large cities, so aero club members often stay over. Some of these rooms are available for rent to transient pilots and touring pilots. The Aero Club of East Africa offers excellent lodging at Wilson Airport. Photo courtesy of the Aero Club of East Africa.Round out your pre-vacation sleuthing by researching AOPA and Experimental Aircraft Association connections around the world. The International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA) is made up of affiliates from 73 countries, and is administered through AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland. EAA also has chapters outside of the United States and Canada.

What we’ve discovered in our travels is that beyond the potential for taking a flight or making a new friend, there are a lot of other benefits to hooking up with an aero club. At Nairobi, Kenya’s Wilson Airport there is the Aero Club of East Africa, equipped with a bar and restaurant, bedrooms for overnight stays, and even a brand-new swimming pool available to members and guests. A quick flight, barely leaving the airport traffic area, reveals a nature reserve and its trove of animals, as well as a sweeping wild vista of high plateau bush spreading away from the urban bustle.

We learned that because smaller airports tend to be in rural areas, aero clubs have developed into homes away from home for their members. Weekend flying is often wrapped up with club barbecues or socials, and people everywhere are as eager to learn about how we fly in the United States as we are about learning their ways of aviating. Our sojourn with the Cape Gliding Club meant we got to rent a “hut” for sleeping, and use the club’s recreational facilities for the weekend in Worcester, about two hours’ drive from Cape Town, South Africa. In the Central Otago Valley, on the South Island of New Zealand, we stayed in a regular airport motel at the Alexandra Airport designed specifically for fly-in guests. And yes, we got to practice a couple great winch launches by sharing the work of the ground crew with the local soaring club that weekend.

You could share similar experiences with the New Zealand Aero Club if you prefer powered airplanes, or for that matter, with the Aero Club South Africa, the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom, and the Aero-Club of Switzerland (23,000 pilots in 370 local groups and 40 regional aero clubs), just to name a few.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent plenty of contemplative moments in the last few months thinking about where my husband and I would like to go once travel becomes easy again, and there is no question that wherever we venture, we’ll again seek out aviation-minded individuals to help orient and entertain us along the way.

A Cape Gliding Club glider waits for the signal before being winched skyward at Worcester Airport, deep in wine country, some two hours from Cape Town, South Africa. The club facilities include a clubhouse, pool, individually owned weekend "huts" and hangars for the tow plane, and numerous club and club member aircraft residing on the airfield. Photo by Amy Laboda.

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