For many pilots, the thought of stepping out of the house, getting into an airplane and taxiing just a few hundred feet to the runway — all without ever touching a car door — is the ultimate fantasy. For the thousands who live in residential airparks around the country, that way of life isn’t just a pipe dream but an everyday reality. When it comes to the benefits that fly-in communities afford, the upsides are plentiful, ranging from everything to more time spent in the air to a strong sense of neighborhood camaraderie among like-minded aviators. But selecting the right airpark to call home can be tricky, and depending upon personal preferences, airport amenities and a variety of other factors, airparks around the country can provide vastly different experiences.
A New Kind of Community
The concept of residential airparks first gained traction after World War II, a time period when the United States had an incredible abundance of both airfields and pilots. In order to put countless deactivated military strips across the nation to good use and to accommodate a pilot population that had ballooned from fewer than 34,000 in 1939 to more than 400,000 by 1946, the Civil Aeronautics Administration proposed the construction of 6,000 residential airparks throughout the country, with initial focus placed on the Southeast. While that number was never fulfilled, the momentum created by the initial proposal paved the way for decades’ worth of interest and investment in what has become a large and active network of fly-in communities.
According to Living With Your Plane, an online airpark directory and resource center, there are more than 630 fly-in communities around the globe. That list includes everything from the world’s largest and most well-known aviation residential areas to the multitude of smaller hidden gems scattered near and far. When it comes to the United States, Florida leads the pack with more than 70 airparks on record with Living With Your Plane. Texas and Washington trail close behind with more than 65 and 50, respectively. But almost every section of the United States boasts a healthy figure. And while airparks were once an American phenomenon, they have spread around the world. Today, there are thriving communities everywhere, from Zandspruit, South Africa, to Siljansnäs, Sweden.
The beauty of that wide spectrum is that today’s airparks provide living experiences as diverse as the wants and desires of the pilot population. Whether you’re a pilot who craves quiet country landscapes and rural living or someone steeped in the urban lifestyle, there’s likely an airpark right for you that’s not too far away.
When it comes to larger residential aviation communities, many serve as their own contained minitowns, offering almost every major airport amenity imaginable, not to mention countless extras, such as on-site restaurants, sporting facilities and country clubs. Spruce Creek, one of the biggest and best known fly-in communities in the country, is one such airpark, providing residents with everything from an 18-hole golf course to community doctors who make house calls. With its first house built in 1974, the Metro Daytona Beach airpark now boasts more than 1,500 homes and 600 based aircraft, which range from World War I classics, such as the Sopwith Camel, to Cessna Citations. To accommodate such a large pilot residency, which has at times included such celebrities as John Travolta and NASCAR’s finest, Spruce Creek maintains a whopping 14 miles of taxiways and 30 miles of roadways. With a 4,000-by-150-foot runway, GPS approach, several flying clubs, rental aircraft and flight training all at residents’ fingertips, the community leaves little to be desired in terms of services.
In addition to that lengthy list of comforts, Lenny Ohlsson, owner of Spruce Creek Fly-In Realty, says the airpark’s proximity to an urban center is largely responsible for its growth.
“We’re very popular because we’re close to a town,” he says. “You can go outside our front gate and bank, go to the supermarket. You can go down another mile and get your heart replaced. There’s everything you need within five miles.”
Hal Shevers, founder of Sporty’s Pilot Shop, hopes his new airpark’s proximity to a major Midwestern city will create similar popularity. Sandy’s Airpark, named after Shevers’ wife, was first conceived in 2005, when Sporty’s was expanding and pursuing the development of 75 T-hangars on Clermont County Airport in Batavia, Ohio, located outside of Cincinnati. Today, the airpark is just getting started, with four homes already completed and 12 additional lots currently available for prospective buyers. Unlike most airparks, the airport at Sandy’s is publicly owned, and residents receive access to it through an easement into the taxiway system.
In addition to Sporty’s presence at the airport, avionics and maintenance companies call Clermont County home, providing pilots with a one-stop shop for their flying needs. With those great facilities, as well as Sandy’s proximity to one of America’s major cities, Shevers feels that Sandy’s offers the best of both worlds.
“Cincinnati’s a big small town, with hundreds of restaurants, professional sports, a symphony and a university of 4,000 students,” he says. “And yet you’re here living out in the country with a home in the woods.”
A number of airparks offer the benefits of community in conjunction with the beauty and privacy of country living. Take for example, Heaven’s Landing, which is nestled in the mountains of North Georgia and offers sweeping scenic views along with first-rate aviation perks.
“To find a flat piece of land in the mountains where you can put in a mile-long runway, that’s pretty unique,” property manager Gerald Silvious says.
With three quarters of the airpark surrounded by a national forest, Heaven’s Landing provides an abundance of activities in the immediate area for nature lovers, including hiking and rock climbing. To complement the airpark’s existing 1,400-square-foot clubhouse and racquetball facility, a swimming pool will be finished in the spring. Tennis courts and an equestrian facility are also in the works.
One-and-a-half acre lots are priced between $125,000 and $350,000, and Silvious says many residents have relocated from afar to set up their homestead in Heaven’s Landing.
“It’s unbelievable the people we’ve brought in from all parts of the country,” Silvious says. “We’ve got all four corners of the United States covered, with people throughout the country moving in.”
Despite the residents’ various geographic origins, Silvious says the main thread that runs through the community and its residents is a genuine love of flying.
“This is a community of pilots who get along with each other and love to fly,” he says. “And of course, they love to brag about their airplanes.”
Sharing a Passion
For Dave Martin, a retiree who relocated from San Diego to Independence Airpark in northeast Oregon 10 years ago, the large appeal of airpark living is that close-knit sense of community often shared among residents. While Independence Airpark contains almost 170 homes, Martin says he is familiar with the majority of his neighbors.
“I suppose I know by face and name more than half of the people who live here,” he says.
Martin, an RV-12 owner, says his fellow residents in Independence Airpark, which is home to a large percentage of kitbuilders, were incredibly supportive in his quest to finish his airplane, a task made much easier thanks to the simple fact that his hangar is attached to his house.
“There’s a great community of helping each other here, especially related to aviation,” he says. “When I started my RV-12, I had a number of local folks who helped build the first part of the kit. People lend each other tools, and we give each other a hand with various things.”
Airpark owner Greg Largen purchased Stearman Estates, located outside of Wichita, Kansas, with two friends about 10 years ago and says the relationships among neighbors is what sets fly-in communities like his apart from traditional residences. Regular events hosted by the airpark, including an annual summer fly-in, chili cook-offs and frequent fly-outs, only help strengthen those bonds.
“It’s kind of like family here. It doesn’t matter who you are, and we don’t care what you fly or if you fly,” he says. “On a nice evening after work, people are out on golf carts, out walking, stopping by hangars. In that respect, it’s special to us.”
A Home Like No Other
In addition to the convenience, the camaraderie and the many other benefits airpark residents reap, nothing beats the main advantage of living in a fly-in community: the opportunity to get up in the air easily and often. For commuters, living in an airpark makes it truly feasible and, in many cases, more economical to use an airplane to get where their schedules demand. For recreational pilots, fly-in communities provide a means and a strong incentive to enjoy flying on a more regular basis.
“The benefits are huge,” says Ben Sclair, publisher of General Aviation News and Living With Your Plane. Sclair grew up in the fly-in community of Shady Acres in Spanaway, Washington. “What a joy to decide ‘I want to go flying today’ and walk 20 steps to your hangar, push open the door, fire up the airplane and away you go,” he says. “Not having that 15-, 20-, 30-minute commute to the airport is just an absolute treasure.”
With the airport just a couple hundred feet from your doorstep, the traditional barriers and excuses that stop many of us from taking that evening joy ride or making that short hop across town — whether it be a lack of time, a reluctance to make the drive to the airport or one of the numerous other distractions that steal our attention — fall away. Instead, we’re left with more occasions to enjoy that one-of-a-kind feeling that comes from hopping in the left seat, inhaling that cockpit smell we know so well and feeling the Earth sink below us as we pull back on the yoke. What better way to enjoy that feeling than to live in a community where it can be shared and appreciated by like-minded friends.
Prospective Buyers: What to Consider
While buying any new property is a big undertaking that requires serious deliberation, individuals interested in purchasing a home or lot in a residential airpark face several additional considerations.
“Unlike a regular home, where people may or may not be familiar with an area, airpark living, while very special, is different,” says Ben Sclair, publisher of General Aviation News and Living With Your Plane. “If you buy into a bad situation, it could take a much longer period of time to extract yourself.”
To manage that risk, potential buyers should perform a brutally honest assessment of their priorities and preferences before they start their search. Are you interested in the privacy of a remote area, or do you crave the convenience of an urban setting? Are there certain airport amenities, such as a full-service FBO or maintenance shop, that you simply can’t live without? If you have children, are there nearby schools and services that will meet their needs? All of these questions should be answered thoroughly.
One other consideration is whether to purchase property at a private or publicly owned airport. While Congress recently passed legislation allowing residential through-the-fence agreements at publicly owned airports, Sclair recommends that anyone considering purchasing a property at an airport that isn’t privately owned secure a good lawyer to ensure their interests are fully protected.
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