The People and Planes of Spruce Creek
Fun: flying south for the winter. More fun: flying every day
- By Debbie Gary
- Air & Space magazine, July 2004
(Page 3 of 4)
Aerial newlywed Bob Gandt, an author and retired Pan Am and Delta captain, also lived in another airpark, Eagle’s Nest, 40 miles northwest of Spruce Creek, near Crescent City. “It was very bucolic,” he says, “a little oasis in the middle of rural Florida, very upscale, very rural. We had a bit of acreage around us and we had critters—a flock of Sandhill cranes and an alligator in the lake behind my house. It was a small community with only 14 houses, like a little colony, whereas this is virtually a town.” And like a town, it has neighborhood diversity.
In one section of Spruce Creek, aircraft are parked in planeports, open-air structures with a roof and three walls but no door. In another, airplanes are parked beside houses, like cars in a driveway, and another area features paired houses, with duplex-style hangars behind them. In Keith Phillips’ neighborhood there are multiple large hangars accessible from Cessna Boulevard, one of the airpark’s major thoroughfares, which runs behind Phillips’ house. Much of the taxiway network feeds airplanes from homes, down Cessna Boulevard, and to the airpark runway. Auto traffic to Spruce Creek’s commercial district also travels down Cessna Boulevard. Aircraft taxi down the middle, while cars drive on either side.
Phillips has two hangars, which house numerous aircraft he has built over the years. One is a sleek red Swearingen SX-300, which looks like it’s going 250 knots standing still. Another is a bright yellow Pitts 12 biplane with a 400-horsepower radial engine. It’s the SX-300’s polar opposite: It has a fat fuselage, wing struts and flying wires, and its propeller blades are as big as the leaves on a banana plant.
The hundred pilots who are official members of the Gaggle Flight meet at Phillips’ hangars periodically to socialize and review the group’s procedures. They try to avoid taking themselves too seriously, Phillips says, but formation flying is dangerous unless everyone follows the same plan, so they have rules and safety meetings.
With all the flying that goes on at Spruce Creek, the airport has a remarkably good safety record, especially considering that it has no control tower to direct traffic. Instead, pilots announce their positions and intentions over a common VHF radio frequency. Like any airport, though, Spruce Creek has had its share of accidents: On April 10, a Pilatus P3-05 hit a tree near Spruce Creek while returning from a Gaggle Flight breakfast in Titusville. Both pilot and passenger were killed. Four days later, a visiting pilot and two passengers were injured when their King Air crashed during an aborted landing in Spruce Creek.
One Thursday afternoon, a group of pilots hang around Phillips’ office chatting and telling jokes while he writes the script for their Saturday morning flight past a beach parade. Someone gives the update on a youngster they’ve sponsored to take flight training, then Phillips tells a story about an impromptu race he was in against record-setting, time-to-climb pilot Bruce Bohannon at last December’s centennial of flight celebration at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. “The Pitts is full of gas so it’s extra-heavy, and the wheel pants are off, so there’s extra drag,” Phillips says. “Still, I beat him into the air. Then we match each other in the climb, so I pull a little steeper. Bohannon [flying a heavily modifed RV-4] matches it. At 1,000 feet, he’s a teeny bit ahead. My propeller was even with his engine. Later, Bohannon [who reached close to 45,000 feet] said, ‘You know, Keith, if you had had a light load of gas, you would have beaten me.’ ”
Saturday, on the way to breakfast in St. Augustine, the group of 26 airplanes will zip along the coast at Ormond Beach for a flight past the Centennial of Speed Parade. Bob Terry and Charlie Tinsted will be on the beach reading Phillips’ script describing the group’s airplanes and the history of the Gaggle Flight, while Phillips leads the way in his SX-300.
At Spruce Creek, there is something to do every day, and somebody to do it with. Gaggle pilot Bob Wahl and his wife Lorraine first tried retirement in the Florida Keys. “In the Keys, you fish and play tennis and drive 30 or 40 miles to Marathon to fly your airplane,” he says. “It’s a beautiful area, but there really wasn’t enough to do. After a while, if you were going to live there you would probably start drinking.” Twelve years ago, they moved to Spruce Creek. Wahl built model airplanes as a kid and now has built four full-size airplanes, including a Stewart F-51, a Pitts 12, and his current project, an F-1 rocket.