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
"SMOKE ON," THE GROOM RADIOS HIS FOUR WINGMAN. Five lace-white trails unfurl behind the five SIAI-Marchettis. Below, 400 guests watch the airplanes arc through a stained-glass-blue sky. It is a perfect day for a wedding.
Inside the lead airplane, pilot Bob Gandt and his passenger, Anne Busse, are about to recite their vows. Just past the crowd, the five aircraft bank gracefully and climb for a turnaround, while Reverend John McCollister asks if anyone has reason why Gandt and Busse should not marry. Of course no one does, but at that moment Gene McNeely zooms past at treetop level in his North American AT-6, belching smoke and rocking his wings, playacting an irate lover. After a few laughs McCollister says, “Well, he’s not transmitting, so the heck with him.”
When the bride, groom, and wingmen return for the I Do Pass, McCollister pronounces Gandt and Busse man and wife. The grand finale is the Missing Groom Flyby, with Gandt’s airplane pulling up and away from the others.
The Gandts, McNeely, and most of the wedding guests are all residents of Spruce Creek Fly-In, an airpark just outside of Daytona Beach, Florida. At Spruce Creek, which has a 4,000-foot runway and 13 miles of taxiways, residents live with their airplanes, and flying is nearly as common and certainly as simple as backing out of a two-car garage. Pilots like Gandt and McNeely live here because they love the convenience of the one-minute commute from their back door to the runway. They also love having neighbors who build airplanes, fly out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sightsee from the air, and practice formation flying. Living in the airpark is a lot like being at an airshow that begins anew each day.
In the morning, while you sip coffee by the pool and listen to the scrub jays and the catbirds in the palmetto trees, you might hear an engine fire up down the street. You guess by the sound of it that it’s the big radial in Keith Phillips’ Pitts 12. Then you hear Bob Wahl taxi by in his Great Lakes or John Champlain in his Piper Comanche. If it’s Saturday morning, one or the other will be taxiing to The Tree for the Gaggle Flight, a weekly formation flyout to breakfast that begins at a large oak in Spruce Creek’s aptly named Windsock Park. If you aren’t flying with them, you hop in your golf cart to follow and watch them take off in groups of two, three, and four airplanes from the 176-foot-wide runway. (Nearly everyone in the neighborhood has a golf cart, since cars are not allowed on most taxiways.)
If it’s Wednesday midday, you might see Ron Vickrey and a group of Beech Bonanza pilots meet at The Tree for their weekly luncheon flyout. Florida is a flying-friendly state, with its sunshiny days, level terrain, and abundance of airport restaurants like the Fly By Café in St. Augustine, the Wings Bar and Grill at Bunnell, and the Outer Marker Café in Titusville. Florida also has a lot of long, wide runways, former World War II military airstrips that are perfect for group landings.
In fact, Spruce Creek began life as a Navy airstrip. It is now the largest private airpark in the United States, a 1,140-acre gated community, seven miles south of Daytona International Airport, with about 4,500 residents and close to 650 aircraft. There are some 1,600 buildings, including residences, hangars, and commercial space.
During World War II, Spruce Creek was the site of the Samsula Auxiliary Airfield, an outpost for Daytona and Deland Naval Air Stations. After the war, the federal government gave the land and runways to the city of Daytona Beach. Since the city already had a big airport close to town, the strip and acreage lay empty, except for drag racers, fishermen, hunters, and nature lovers. The parcel of land is seven miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and with short mild winters, long hot summers, afternoon showers, and moist ocean breezes, it soon returned to jungle. Even now, the northern half of Spruce Creek nestles against the dense woods of a 2,000-acre nature preserve. The creek for which the place is named, a rich, tea-colored stream, is home to herons, egrets, alligators, fish, and manatees.
The Fly-In’s developer, McKinley Conway, found the site as he flew around the country during the 1960s, looking for the perfect place to design his dream airport city. Conway, who in 1940 had two engineering degrees and a pilot’s license by the age of 20, had written dozens of articles promoting industrial airparks and the live-in, fly-in concept. He convinced Daytona Beach officials that Spruce Creek was the perfect place for airplane lovers, but city officials didn’t want to develop it themselves. So from 1969 to 1979, Conway and a group of Atlanta businessmen laid the groundwork for transforming the patch of wild Florida into a place where people could live.
But Conway’s group ran into financial setbacks, and in 1979, real estate developer Jay Thompson took over the project. Thompson was already developing the upscale Bent Tree Golf and Racquet Club in Sarasota, Florida. For Spruce Creek, Thompson downsized Conway’s plans, reducing the number of subdivided lots from 6,000 to 2,400 and commercial space from three million to 300,000 square feet. Some of that space now includes a restaurant, maintenance shops, fuel pumps, five real estate offices, hangars, and public parking.
Construction at Spruce Creek inched along. In 1983, when Delta pilot Tim Plunkett first looked at the place, there were so few houses his wife refused to move there from Miami. By 1988, when he looked again, there were 100 homes, including one owned by John Travolta. Most residents’ eyes glaze over when they are asked about Travolta (he is the first subject many non-residents inquire about). Plunkett recalls seeing the actor stroll by his house. “He’s a nice guy who’s crazy about airplanes,” says Plunkett. “He had a G-II, a Learjet, and a Canadair Tutor. He’s an airplane lunatic, but it has to be a jet. When he bought a Boeing 707, he couldn’t get it in and out of here, so he moved to Ocala,” where the actor lives in an upscale airpark that has a 7,550-foot runway.
Plunkett is an airplane lunatic himself. “It is not a hobby,” he says. “It’s not even a job. It’s a life. It’s who you are.” He owns a twin-engine Beech Baron, a MiG-15 fighter, and an airworthy replica of a World War I Fokker triplane. His heart belongs to the Fokker, which he flies every chance he gets.
When Plunkett was a college student, his red bicycle earned him the nickname Red Baron, but he didn’t understand the name’s significance until he saw The Blue Max, a 1966 film about World War I pilots, including German ace Manfred von Richthofen, known as the Red Baron. Somewhere between watching the Fokker triplane’s performance in the screen version of the Battle of the Somme and the end of the movie, Plunkett decided he had to fly, and it had to be in that airplane.
A year and a half ago he found a Fokker triplane in North Carolina and brought it back to his hangar in Spruce Creek. “There are a lot of non-aviation people at Spruce Creek,” Plunkett says. “But when I take this airplane to The Tree, even those people come out and know its name and who the Red Baron was. When I take it up and make a couple passes down the runway, I see about 50 golf carts headed for The Tree.”
About half the residents of Spruce Creek are the “non-aviation people” that Plunkett mentions, and most of these non-flying families don’t live on the taxiway lots, which have risen steadily in value and are among the priciest in Spruce Creek.
When they first moved here, Ron and Sylvia Vickrey were skeptical about the development’s investment value, but they’re now convinced they made a wise choice. Before moving to Spruce Creek in 1992, the Vickreys lived in an airpark of about 100 homes near Chicago. Although that development is not a gated community and all its streets are open to non-residents, their home sold quickly in the slow real estate market of the early 1990s. Still, the Vickreys worried that an airport home was an investment in a niche market, and when they retired to Florida, they wanted a surer thing. At first they looked at everything but airpark properties. Then they realized they were used to having their airplane in the back yard. “Not living here would be like keeping your car three miles away and having to take a cab to drive it,” Ron says. “So here we are. As it turns out, I wish now I had bought the 10 lots around me that were empty, because they are selling for three times what I could have bought them for 10 years ago.”
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.
Not every hangar in the park is stuffed with airplanes. Brenda and Bill Lear Jr. (the son of Learjet creator William P. Lear) bought a home with a hangar, but they both sold their airplanes before they moved in. Without an airplane, their hangar is a workshop and a warehouse for, among other things, copies of Bill Lear’s autobiography, Fly Fast… Sin Boldly. For medical reasons he doesn’t fly anymore, but he takes a radio and his golf cart to The Tree on beautiful afternoons and teases other pilots with his landing critiques. (“That’s a nine and a half, Gene,” he says. “Your tail was too low.”)
On weekday afternoons at 4 p.m., Lear and a group of guys, many of them retired airline pilots, head for Darrel Bassuener’s hangar, near the runway. They arrive by car, airplane, golf cart, bike, and motorcycle, and they sip soda and beer alongside Bassuener’s North American T-28 (the sumo wrestler of single-engine airplanes). They tell stories and try out jokes. On one side of a long fold-up table, John McCollister repeats the local favorite, “Did you know that when you die at Spruce Creek, going to heaven is a lateral move?” On the other side of the table, someone tells the one about the novice copilot breaking out of the clouds and spotting the really short runway that is 150 feet long and 10,000 feet wide.
Outside, the airshow goes on. In the background, Dennis Demers’ Cessna Citation jet spools up and heads for Vermont. Two RV-8s fly in a tight formation, a Republic Seabee turns on downwind, and Orval Fairbairn taxies by in his 1946 Johnson Rocket.
Sidebar: The Details
SPRUCE CREEK is a 1,140-acre airpark seven miles from the Atlantic coastline beach. The development is close to Daytona Beach, which lies about 50 miles north of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The nearest major airport is Daytona International, seven miles to the north.
Sidebar: Vital Stats
Dining: Try Pepino’s, in Spruce Creek’s commercial district. Don’t Miss: Spruce Creek’s annual Wings and Wheels Day, held every March, when residents display the vintage automobiles, motorcycles, and aircraft normally hidden in their hangars. Living There: For information about community amenities and listings of available properties, visit Spruce Creek Fly-In Realty at www.fly-in.com and the Spruce Creek Property Owners’ Association at www.scpoa.com.