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Base Aero Club shutting down

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- After two-consecutive years of losing members and money, the 45th Space Wing Commander has recommended shutting down the Patrick AFB Aero Club. The Air Staff will make the final decision.

The club is not supported by tax dollars and has to turn a profit in order to keep flying. It recently boasted membership of about 190, but currently is down to around 110. It lost approximately $23,000 in fiscal year 2005 and $19,000 in fiscal year 2006 and faced a forecasted need for more than $85,000 in capital improvements for fiscal year 2007.

The Patrick Aero Club operates and maintains seven small airplanes with an average age of 32 years. It is believed to have started operating at Patrick in 1959.

"The club is part of the base's heritage, but unfortunately, closing it is the most fiscally responsible move at this time," said Col. Mark Bontrager, 45th Mission Support Group commander. "We simply cannot afford to keep unprofitable programs going because they drain resources away from more widely used and self-sufficient programs and services."

Aero clubs were founded by Gen. Curtis LeMay at Offutt AFB, Neb. in 1948 and soared to their heydays in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there were about 75 clubs throughout the Air Force. Today, there are only about 25 -- located at about one third of major Air Force installations worldwide.

"Much like Aero Clubs around the Air Force, our membership is evaporating, our fleet is aging and operating costs are rising," said Colonel Bontrager. "It's tough to properly maintain the fleet without sufficient revenues."

Base officials recognized a decline in membership and revenue beginning in FY04. Steps were taken to generate more interest in the club, while trying to also generate additional revenue.

Most recently, new programs such as Discovery Flight, Pinch Hitter Course and Aces High, Fun in the Sky gave potential customers a taste of what it was like to fly in one of the club's aircraft for a nominal fee. Valentine Flights and Holiday Light Flights were programs geared towards generating additional revenue for the club.

In January 2006, two of the programs planes were grounded to further cut costs. At that same time, quarterly open houses/membership drives were scheduled in an attempt to increase membership and interest in the club.

"Unfortunately, these initiatives didn't resolve the issues," said Colonel Bontrager. "Without a solid customer base to generate funds needed to upgrade and refurbish the fleet we can't provide the preferred level of safety and customer service for our patrons."

Colonel Bontrager added that if the Air Staff agrees with the proposal to close the club, the goal is to keep the club going long enough to help students currently attending a class the opportunity to complete that training.

"We're sorry the Aero Club can't sustain itself, but we're committed to taking care of its members," he said. "Plus, we continue to offer scores of other recreational programs and services through our Services Division."