Living with Your Airplane

Is swapping your garage for a t-hangar and your driveway for a taxiway too much aviation or just enough?

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You can't go to a party in Florida where I live and escape a conversation about real estate or hurricanes. There's no doubt that the state is still adding to its population base and the interaction between the growth, the weather and the price of real estate makes for an underlying hum of concern. One of the things I like about where I live is that I'm just seven minutes from the airport where we keep our airplane. Our back yard has a terrific view of Tampa Bay and the airplanes headed for 36 Left at Tampa International Airport. This is the closest I've lived to an airplane I've owned in 35 years of paying hangar rent.

There are even more intimate living arrangements, though, and I've started to think about them. Specifically, what about living at an airport? I had never been to a "fly-in" community until a friend called and invited my wife and me for a visit featuring a "gathering" and a night's stay. We jumped eagerly at the possibility of seeing a new living arrangement.

It was to be a short trip, just 105.9 nautical miles, from Tampa to the Spruce Creek flying community near Daytona Beach, but there were plenty of thunderstorms about on a warm October afternoon. We called our host, Bob Blankenship, just before taking off and he said he'd be listening on his handheld radio for us to call the Unicom frequency. "I'll meet you in my golf cart and direct you to a parking space I've picked out for you." Bob is thoughtful that way.

We climbed to five thousand and started dodging the build-ups. I could see a large cell on the Avidyne EX500 located just almost on top of our destination, or maybe just a hair north of the field. The Nexrad picture for our route looked okay, but I watched with motivated interest as we neared the destination. I knew I wouldn't have to wonder for long, as the whole trip was planned for 28 minutes.

We got vectored around a bit by Orlando and then Daytona Approach, both doing an admirable job of mixing big jets with practicing airmen in small airplanes in an airspace festooned with showers. When cleared to descend to 1,600 feet, I cancelled IFR and started looking for the field. The picture on the MFD was not encouraging. The field appeared to be covered by green if not yellow returns and there was a large red splotch just north of the lighter precipitation. The runway was not easy to spot and by the time I had it in sight I had a decision to contemplate. I could do the right thing, over fly the field and enter a left downwind for Runway five, but that looked like it would take us into a dark wall of forbidding precip. I switched the Avidyne to onboard radar, confirmed the unfriendly skies, and opted to abandon any niceties, make a 360 off the approach end of the runway to lose altitude, announce my intentions and get this thing on the ground. I hoped not too many experienced aviators were watching our inelegant but practical arrival. We touched down softly.

As we taxied in, it began to rain heavily. I called Bob on the Unicom frequency but got no answer. We just sat out front of the FBO listening to the rain, not wanting to shutdown, but not knowing where to go. I tried the cell phone, but got a recording. The rain persisted, hard. I was thinking about how glad I was to be on the ground when I heard our host on the radio. A few seconds later he came thundering around the corner in a hot golf cart with a Southwest Airlines logo on the front. We parked the airplane and ran for the modest cover of the cart. Turns out Bob had taken a nap, awakened to see the thunderstorm and concluded that we'd be a least an hour late and gone back to sleep. This made me wonder about my decision to press on.

I had once landed at Spruce Creek to drop off former Flying columnist, Tom Block, but that time I just turned around and took off. We never even shutdown the engines. Now I was back to see what it was like, go to this "gathering" of people who lived there, and spend the night. It is hard now to remember what my expectations had been. I think I thought that fly-in communities were out in the boondocks, overrun with airplane kooks, not very well kept up and often teetering into bankruptcy.

Not so here. The place was immaculate and there were lots of airplanes, from Lears to Tomahawks, lounging in magnificent hangars. Some hangars dwarfed the homes, but many homes were huge and overshadowed the hangars. From the street you often couldn't see the hangars. From the taxiways you often couldn't see the house. It was like being backstage at Disney, said my wife, Cathy. We vowed to take a complete look when the rain let up.

A "gathering" turned out to be a party by any other name. By the time we'd stowed our luggage, been implored by our host to help with the mountain of clothes waiting to be ironed, and changed, the doorbell started ringing. Some guests arrived through the hangar, circumnavigating the J3 Cub and the V35 Bonanza. Others came in the front door. Two friends had been deputized by Bob to get the party organized. It turned out that one was a master martini maker. She gave Cathy two of them and the next thing I knew, I was at the party by myself.

The crowd was bright, articulate, worldly, upbeat and, well, a lot of fun. Neighbors included retired FedEx and American Airlines captains, two ophthalmologist airplane owners, and a retinue of Southwest Airline captains and flight attendants. Bob estimated that 60 percent of the Spruce Creek denizens are airline people, 10 percent are involved with NASCAR and like being near Daytona, and the rest are mostly just airplane nuts. "We got CJ's, Pilatuses, TBM's, Stearmen, just about everything here."

It didn't take long for things to get fired up. Richard Moore, the FedEx retiree, told me he finished up his career with a dream job. He lived in Fort Lauderdale and "got into my own bed every night." I asked if he flew during the day. "No, I left home around 9:30 at night, flew to Newark, waited until 3 or so, came home and called Diane when I landed. She'd meet me at the door in her cocktail dress, twirl around and hand me a toddy. We'd sit up shooting the breeze until midmorning, then hit the hay."

Diane had her side of the story. "Oh, he's some pilot, alright," she said. "I've been flying for 11 years. I fly our Baron everywhere. But when I had to shut one down, Mr. Hotshot was full of helpful advice, like to restart the engine down low, so as to land with two engines. That was a bad plan. As soon as we started that engine, a cylinder exited the cowling. It is lying in some farmer's field. What a mess." She winked at her husband and they drifted over to talk to another retired airline captain while I talked to the seemingly endless supply of ophthalmologists.

They were airplane guys, too. One owned a Cessna 210, the other a F33 Bonanza. We had discussions about retirement, medicine, and, not surprisingly, airplanes. Next I knew, a gaggle of partygoers was headed out to see our Cheyenne. By now there was lots of laughter and I watched with some trepidation as five or six celebrants climbed into our airplane. Those glasses of red wine looked pretty precarious in those unsteady hands and I found myself thinking that our interior is not maroon. No damage was done and I beamed with pleasure as Tony Clinton, a Southwest Captain, admired our avionics and interior.

Tony has just built a home at Spruce Creek. He's got a friend's Tomahawk in his hangar. And the Porsche 914 that he races, of course. You might want to just ring his doorbell and ask to see the "media room," a movie theater on the second floor with surround sound. Be sure to watch the flying scene from the movie X2 X Men United. Tony said the sequence only lasted four minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. I had a heart rate of 140 when it was all over, the lights came back up and we stumbled out in the spacious and beautiful home.

Next morning, we took a golf cart tour. Most hangar doors were closed up tight. Why? Because they are air-conditioned. Spruce Creek started as a military base during the Second World War. I didn't know that the Army and the Navy, then battling for hegemony in the new arena of military aviation, were assigned airfields based on Florida geography. The Navy got the eastern half of the peninsula and the Army got the western airports. Thus Spruce Creek belonged to the Navy. Airfields at nearby Deland, Ormond Beach and Daytona were claimed by local communities after the war, but Spruce Creekians had little interest and the airfield fell into disrepair. In the early 1970's developers from Atlanta started a fly-in community on the site and limited lot sales to citizens of Georgia. This farsighted marketing plan resulted in a predictable appearance in bankruptcy court.

In the 1980's, though, things finally got going and today there are only a few remaining lots for sale. Some homes are 20 years old, but on the south side of the runway the homes tend toward the new and the expensive. We saw some lots for sale in the $200,000-range and homes that ranged from $600,000 to $6 million. In all, there are about 1,800 homes in the development and a golf course, too. Five hundred of those homes have taxiway access, and other homeowners have T-hangars on the field.

What would it be like to live here? It is hard to tell. I didn't see anything but the airport and the guests at the party. I have no point of reference and no idea as to whether the nearest decent restaurant is five minutes or 50 miles away. I don't play golf. Would living with so many people obviously interested in (obsessed with?) airplanes be fascinating or claustrophobic? I don't know. I think this, though: I liked the people I met and they liked living this way. I liked the variation in the aviation interests; from Pitts to Pilatuses, Luscombes to Lears. I've got about another five years to retirement and I wonder if a place like Spruce Creek might just be the spot for us. Wouldn't winter be grand, falling to sleep in warm air with the possibility that next morning the alarm clock might be the loud sound of the Stearman parked next door?