Long before there were airplanes, a small village thrived in what is now occupied by the Spruce Creek Fly-in. The village’s cemetery is all that remains and stands today as colorful testament of Spruce Creek’s early settlers. For the last two hundred years it has served as a final resting place to area inhabitants. Among the graves with the older headstones we find that Civil War soldiers are buried there. Other headstones, like the ones from the Smith family’s plot reflect some forgotten tragedies of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The large plot contains the crypts of the father and mother. To the left of the parents are buried six children who died before adulthood. To the right are twelve stillborn infants.
Early Aviation Days in Daytona Beach...
The Daytona Beach area has had a long tradition of automotive racing starting in the early 1900’s. The smooth, hard-packed sand and lack of natural obstructions provided a ready-made surface to use for anything with wheels and speed. Pilots soon caught on and used the beach as a runway. Hangars were built later, and even aircraft service was provided on the beach. This former airport is one of only two beach airports that were successful. The other, Old Orchard Beach, was located in Maine and was the starting point for at least five transatlantic flights during the 1920s and 1930s.
According to Warren Brown’s Florida's Aviation History, The first flight on the beach occurred in 1906 by Charles K. Hamilton, using Israel Ludlow's glider. The glider was pulled by an automobile and actually took place in Ormond. He went as high as 150 feet on his first try, and 250 feet on the second, before crashing into a flagpole and surviving with only a bruised knee.
Numerous flights followed, including John A. McCurdy, the United States’ 5th licensed pilot, in 1911, Phillips Page in 1912, and Ruth Law in 1913. Phillips Page has been credited for taking the first aerial photographs in Florida, while flying around the Hotel Clarendon in Daytona Beach. Many other pilots took to the skies above Daytona Beach before the beach “airport” was finally closed the winter of 1929-30.
All flights were moved to the new location at Bethune Point, right on the Halifax River. Eastern Air Transport was the first commercial service out of Daytona Beach. The airline was certified to fly mail to Tampa and Orlando. However, the first flight crashed just after takeoff, due to a mechanical failure. The pilot was uninjured, and the mail was collected and sent out on a different flight.
Florida State Airways, Inc was an airline that formed in early 1930 in Daytona Beach. The airline provided service for passengers to other Florida cities and to the Bahamas, using Ryan aircraft. In January 1930, Vice President of Operations and part time barnstormer, Bill Lindley, piloted a flight to Palm Beach. While on the descent, he never pulled out of the dive and went into Lake Worth at full throttle. The combination of Lindley's death and the depression soon caused most aviation activity in Daytona Beach to stop.
During the 1930’s, a 740-acre piece of land located around today’s International Speedway was developed into a field to serve Daytona and replace the old beach Bethune Point field. The first name it was given was Schoetz Field, after the then Governor of Florida who was from Daytona Beach. The airport began with two runways, both gravel. One runway was 1,800 feet long, the other was 2,100 feet long. Before long the name was changed to Daytona Beach Municipal Airport.
Eastern Air Lines began passenger service out of Daytona Beach, flying Kingbirds and Condors. But after only a few years, Eastern did not re-bid after the airmail changes of 1934. In 1935, National Airlines won a bid on the cross-state route from Daytona Beach to St. Petersburg. In 1936, the airport was closed for repairs. National rerouted its flights to Jacksonville but Eastern became upset and called it an act of "buccaneers". National Airlines was nicknamed the "Buccaneer Route", a name that stuck for many years.
In the late 1930s, four 4000 by 150 feet runways were built, all paved. This expansion allowed DC-2 and DC-3 aircraft to land at Daytona Beach. At the time, the terminal was located on the south side of the airport.
At the oubreak of World War II, the Navy and the Army were awarded separate jurisdictions in Florida to build their training bases. The state was divided in half with the Navy awarded the eastern part and the Army the western part. Soon after, the US Navy took over the Daytona airport for training. The airport was renamed the NAS Daytona Beach, all runways were widened to 200 feet and the east-west runway was extended to 5,500 feet. New buildings were constructed, some of which were later used by Embry-Riddle University after their move from Miami in 1965. Nearly 1,500 officers and men were stationed at NAS Daytona Beach at any one time.
The ownership was given back to the city of Daytona Beach in 1946. The first terminal wasn't built until 1952, but once complete in 1958, it brought in a great amount of traffic. A new control tower was built with the terminal. In 1969, Volusia County took over management and renamed the airport to Daytona Beach Regional Airport. Several years later, in 1992, a newer, more modern terminal was built, adding an international terminal, and a longer 10,500-foot (3,200 m) runway. The new terminal and longer runway gave the airport its current status and name, Daytona Beach International Airport.
While the airport is served by United, US Air, AirTran, Continental, and Delta, the only daily direct flights out of the country are provided by Vintage Props and Jets using small, turbo-prop aircraft.
The other Daytona area airports...
During the war, the nearby existing fields in Ormond, Bunnell, New Smyrna Beach and DeLand were also improved and expanded by the Navy to accommodate the increased activity from the Daytona NAS. A fifth airport, designated as a Naval Air Operational Training Base, was completed in late 1943 in what is now occupied by Spruce Creek. The Spruce Creek base was constructed as a training facility and had three runways crisscrossing as well as an extra runway intersecting.
The Navy complemented the facility with a control tower and a small building. While the airport never had any aircraft or personnel based there, T-6's and other aircraft flew training missions from Jacksonville, St. Augustine, DeLand, and dozens of other fields in the area.
When the war ended so did the need for so many military facilities. The airfields of Ormond, Bunnell, DeLand and Daytona Beach were turned over to the local municipalities to own and maintain as civilian airports, much as it happened all over the country in the post-war years. The Spruce Creek facility was decommissioned and eventually sold in 1957 to the City of Daytona Beach which intended to build an industrial park but never made it to fruition. During the early 60’s, the “Samsula Airport”, as it was then named, was used by the locals as a recreational place to drag race, camp and fish. The City tried several other development ideas. For a time, the state of Florida even considered the site for a University. Around 1964, it was offered to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute, which was looking for a new campus to move its Miami facility. Embry-Riddle eventually moved to the Daytona Municipal airport in 1965 after deciding that they did not want the responsibility for maintaining an airport themselves.
Embry-Riddle had began in 1925 as the Embry-Riddle Company, founded by Talton Higbee Embry and John Paul Riddle in Cincinnati, Ohio. Embry-Riddle was eventually incorporated into what is now American Airlines, before reforming during the buildup to World War II in Miami, Florida as the Embry-Riddle School of Aviation, and later, the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute. In 1970, the school was renamed Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
McKinley Conway, Pioneer of the Fly-in Concept.
During WWII, a young Ensign, USNR named McKinley Conway was on active duty testing aircraft at NAS Moffett Field, Calif. With degrees in Aeronautical and Electrical Engineering, he served as project engineer for tests of Navy's first jet fighter, the Ryan FR-1.
After the war, “Mac” Conway began independent research in Atlanta. He bought a used single-engine Cessna 170 and began using it for business travel around the USA. He quickly realized that while the airplane provided great mobility in the air, on the ground it was just the opposite as the logistics of procuring ground transportation often caused frustrating delays. Over the next few years he kept pondering and searching for a solution to his predicament. He imagined a new world in which he could taxi his airplane to the offices and plants he wanted to visit and park at the door.
Throughout that time, Conway observed that many airfields built during WWII were being declared surplus and handed off to local governments. He saw an opportunity in converting them into office and industrial parks where customers and suppliers could fly in. During the early 1960s, Conway made a survey of surplus military airfields in Florida. He took aerial photos, noted access and other features. Conway became an evangelist of the fly-in concept of unimodal transport centers and offered his services as a consultant to the owners - mostly local governments - to prepare development plans for them.
During the Late 60’s and early 70’s, Conway planned and promoted a number of fly-in developments at former military bases in Florida and Georgia as well as other sites from the Northeast to the West Coast. In 1970, he conducted the first national seminar on Fly-In Development, in Cape Kennedy. His experience was summarized in a book, “The Airport City” published in 1977.
A residential Airpark is born, The Spruce Creek Fly-in
One of the sites which particularly appealed to Conway was the old Samsula airfield near Daytona Beach. He had a vision of a unified self-contained community featuring residential commercial, recreational and environmental conservation areas. Conway approached the then owner City of Daytona Beach which showed little interest as it was at the time bidding to the state of Florida for the University site.
The City eventually lost the bid in a highly-publicized competition, and with an election coming up, the Conway proposal now seemed like an attractive alternative. The City had no desire, however, to undertake the project on its own. The mayor and city council members flew to Atlanta to meet with Conway and proposed that he could purchase the property at a very attractive price if he would take on the development.
Conway realized he was faced with one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities where he could do something really special and showcase his ideas. However, he was a planner and not a developer, and did not have the desire nor the financial ability to take on such a project.
Conway assembled a group of investors, mostly Atlanta pilot-friends, and laid out a plan to pool their money to buy the property and arrange with a Florida developer to implement the project. They incorporated their company and named it “Fly-in Concept”. The city officials approved the plan and in early 1969 signed the purchase contract. The permitting process, which included environmental, engineering and other studies as well as numerous approvals from local and county zoning boards and the FAA lasted over a year. In July, 1970 the site plan was finally approved and the project officially launched.
The property transfer ceremony was held at the old airstrip with the Atlanta investors and city officials in attendance. A ceremonial ribbon was stretched across the airstrip and one of the investors cut it with the propeller of his Bonanza. On the photo, we can see of President Mac Conway (at microphone) accepting the Spruce Creek property as Daytona, Florida Mayor Richard Kane (right) looks on.
The primary focus of the Fly-in Concept investors was the recreational aspects of a secluded place where they could fly their airplanes to. Their private getaway offered plenty of natural areas and an unspoiled Creek to go fishing. They graded a taxiway from the end of the runway to the creek for easy access. An old boat was left on the property for the use of all the property owners. It was a convenient place to land, taxi to the creek, fish, and fly-away that same evening.
That pathway that allowed the planes to taxi to the creek is now Taxiway Echo which leads to Overlook Park. Today, with the exception of a pressure-treated wooden path and decks, the Overlook Park area remains as pristine as it was for the original investors.
Thompson Properties buys the airfield
The post-vietnam war 1970s was perhaps the worst decade of American economic performance since the Great Depression. Although there was no severe economic depression as witnessed in the 1930s, economic growth rates were considerably lower than previous decades. The dour economic environment was compounded by the 1973 oil crisis. By the middle 70’s, the Fly-in Concept investors were unable to secure additional financing and declared bankruptcy.
In the late 70’s, Thompson Properties Inc. of Florida, led by Jay Thompson, acquired the 1,400 acres Spruce Creek Airport and immediately started work on updating Conway’s original vision. The property already had governmental approvals in place for over 6,000 living units and 3.0 million square feet of commercial endeavor. Jay Thompson envisioned a community of lower density and higher values with an emphasis on exclusive country club living. After extensive studies and planning, the Spruce Creek master site plan was revised under a philosophy of "Orderly Conservative Growth"' to a phased development, reducing the total number of living units by over fifty percent to 2,650 and cutting ninety percent of the commercial square footage to 300,000.
Today, only a few undeveloped lots remain and the community is literally a thriving private city. Thompson developed the Spruce Creek Country Club together with club house, tennis courts, pool, restaurant, meeting facilities and an 18-hole championship Golf course to complement the airport.
The Spruce Creek Fly-in Today
Of the original military airfield, one runway remains (5-23) as the others were closed or turned into taxiways over the years. The strip is a wide, modern 4,000 ft x 150 ft asphalt-surfaced military-spec runway economically impossible to duplicate in todays’ terms and unique in the world. It has a GPS approach and landing lights which allow 24-hr access. The Spruce Creek airport can accommodate anything from a Stearman to a Gulfstream II.
Today, the Spruce Creek Fly-in Community is the world's most famous residential airpark. Its grounds and homes are impeccably and immaculately groomed. Almost 5,000 residents, 1,300 homes and 700 hangars share a unique life in this private gated village. 24-hr patrolled security complements the safety, privacy and enjoyment of our residents. Frequent community-wide events and theme clubs for most any interest from flying to book reading and gardening ensure a tightly knit and friendly community hard to duplicate anywhere. John Travolta and many other celebrities have enjoyed the Spruce Creek Fly-In lifestyle and have called it home. Truly a piece of pilot's heaven.
The old cemetery still serves as final resting place for many of the local residents. It is lovingly maintained by a team of volunteers and dear family members of the departed. The annual cemetery cleanup event is a tradition that many Spruce Creekers participate in. A nice archway was donated and built by the Johns family at the entrance in 1985 in memory of Curtis James Johns who passed away at the early age of 21.
The modern headstones, many with aircraft motifs reflecting the earthly passions of the occupants beneath, mix in ethereal harmony with those of the older “residents”. These are as picturesque and unique as anywhere else in the world. A lot of Spruce Creekers have expressed their desire to make this their final resting place. As my friend, the late Mike Keemar used to say, “After you have lived at Spruce Creek, heaven’s a lateral move”.
Carlos Bravo Spruce Creeker since 1998