The People and Planes of Spruce Creek

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

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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.

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