While the pandemic has certainly created challenges in every walk of our lives, it also has presented some opportunities.
Take the Smokehouse Pilots Club.
Started a few years ago by pilots based at Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO) in Virginia, the club has grown exponentially, now boasting members from across the globe.
The club started quite informally with a handful of pilots doing some fly-outs and meet ups at a local restaurant, the Smokehouse Live Barbecue.
While that restaurant has since closed — along with two others the club frequented for its meetings — the Smokehouse Pilots Club is going strong, with more than 1,500 members from around the world, reports Gabe Muller, chairman.
The club really took flight in May 2017 when Muller created a Facebook Group for the club.
“It just started taking off to the point where more and more pilots started getting involved,” he says. “Keep in mind that this is a social club — a small flying club without an airplane. But a lot of members have airplanes, so they would use their planes to go on the fly-outs.”
Growth continued, with the weekly in-person get togethers at a local restaurant for a meal and a speaker.
Then the pandemic hit.
“It’s been really interesting, but I will tell you that, probably like many other businesses thinking COVID would be a detriment to things, it actually has injected a ton of growth for us because of utilizing online platforms like Zoom to continue to create relationships and opportunities for everybody,” he says.
Meetings are now conducted through Zoom, attracting members from across the globe. Meetings cover a variety of topics of interest to pilots.
“I have a session this evening with air traffic control to discuss some ideas and answer questions,” he notes.
Many of those sessions are recorded and archived on the club’s website, which also boasts a blog, a discussion board, and other resources for pilots.
And while Gabe’s excited about the club’s booming popularity online, he’s ready for things to get back to normal.
“It’s been really interesting, but I can’t wait to get back to in-person meetings and meet-ups,” he says. “Right before COVID, we were actually pulling in 50 to 60 people into a meetup on a Wednesday night, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Depending on the speaker, we were filling up a restaurant.”
The growth from informal fly-outs and speakers at restaurants to a worldwide phenomenon means the club has become “a production at this point” requiring “lots of coordination,” he reports.
Gabe and his girlfriend, Adrienne, handle the lion’s share of the work, updating the Facebook Group and organizing the events.
“It’s just been one of those things where my life situation has allowed me to do that, and I’m okay with that,” he says. “It’s become kind of like a full-time job while I also have another full-time job.”
One task that has grown as the club has grown is selling the club’s SWAG, which includes polo shirts, hats, and more with the club’s logo emblazoned on them.
“We came up with the idea and and had some custom hats made, then all of a sudden everybody wanted a hat or a shirt,” he says. “It just started taking off from there.”
“There’s all kinds of stuff floating around with Smokehouse Pilots on it right now,” he adds with a laugh. “All the way from Japan to Arizona to back to here.”
Interested in Joining?
Either way, you’ll have to answer two questions:
- What’s your home airport?
- What’s your involvement within aviation?
“I want to make sure that everybody that I’m accepting into the group actually has something to do with aviation,” he explains.
In fact, Gabe hopes to attract people who are as passionate about aviation as he and the other club members are.
“I hope you really do love aviation and love community,” he says. “And if you love both of those, then you’re welcome to join.”
But why should a pilot in Hawaii, Alaska, or France join a club based in Virginia?
“The general aviation community is rather a tight-knit group and there’s a lot of interesting people,” Gabe says. “And I thought, why not continue to bring people together in order to share experiences and opportunities — but then underpin all of this with a level of education and safety in and around flying.”
For example, as a FAASteam member, Gabe now brings WINGS events to the club so members can get credit for being involved in the meetings.
And while safety is a big part of the club’s mission, community is just as important.
“The amount of opportunities I’ve seen pop up online because of being in the group is ridiculous. Every single day I get a message that says, ‘Hey, I met so-and-so and we’re going to go fly,’ or, ‘Hey, I met this instructor,’ or… There’s just a lot of connections that are being built.”
“And I think there’s a lot of people who want to be connected to something,” he continues. “And if we can do that for pilots, I think that’s a job well done — and let’s figure out how to do that even more.”
He notes that when he started flying back in 2009 in Fort Myers, Florida, he was never part of a community.
“I had no friends in aviation at all,” he recalls. “Zero. It was a foreign thing. So once this all started, I knew there was a huge opportunity here. And if we can keep that going, how much better would it be for pilots, including student pilots, to enter our community? And then how can we connect other aviators with them?”
He relates that one member of Smokehouse Pilots Cub is a retired Air Force One pilot.
“Every single time we had our in-person speak-outs, he would give us a 10-minute talk on safety from his perspective. That is priceless, you know?”
“There’s so many cool people in the group,” he adds. “I’m just thankful to continue to meet so many amazing people.”