The People and Planes of Spruce Creek

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

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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.

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