The People and Planes of Spruce Creek

Fun: flying south for the winter. More fun: flying every day

Air & Space Magazine

"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.

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