Planes replacing cars on commutes
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 2:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 2:13 p.m.
WELLINGTON, Fla. - David Prince's morning commute takes eight minutes.
Not bad when you're traveling from Wellington to Boca Raton.
While cars are stuck on Southern Boulevard and Interstate 95, Prince sails above the fray in his 1966 Bellanca Viking.
"The traffic to and from work is never fun. In the airplane, there's never traffic," said Prince, who lives in the Wellington Aero Club. "And there's a nice sunrise and sunset."
Such is the life for those who live in South Florida's fly-in communities, where homes have hangars instead of garages, runways instead of fairways and neighbors recognize each other by the sound of their plane engines.
There are 385 homes in the five fly-in communities in Palm Beach and Broward counties, which are among the estimated 600 fly-in neighborhoods in the country.
They are the places where most people, like Charles Scherer, feel safer in their small aircraft than their cars. Even if they've had close calls.
Scherer has the remains of his Carris Avid Flyer at his house: two wings stacked on a trailer and the nose, snapped off at the control panel.
Everything else is gone, destroyed in April when Scherer and his brother-in-law crashed in a construction field in Delray Beach. The experimental plane's engine quit on the way back from the coast. Scherer still doesn't know what caused the engine to falter — maybe a dirty fuel line. But that's not what's kept him out of the air the past eight months. Neither is the broken back he's still recovering from.
Scherer is staying out of the air to give his wife, Sue, peace of mind.
"I wouldn't hesitate to get back in the air and fly," said Scherer, who's had his pilot's license for 28 years. He keeps three planes in the hangar behind his house at Antiquers Aerodrome, a fly-in community west of Delray Beach.
"If you talk to people who drive cars, you'll find a number have been in accidents," he said. "And they usually still drive."
Small plane crashes like the ones that took lives in Lantana, Wellington and over the Everglades in the past few months are big news, but they are relatively rare.
In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 18 fatal small plane crashes among the state's 26,212 registered pilots. There were more than 3,000 fatal car accidents among the state's 15.3 million licensed drivers. According to those statistics, fatal small plane crashes occur at a higher rate in Florida than fatal car accidents.
But pilots in these communities say they still feel safer in the air than on the road. Most of them fly at least once a week for the thrill, the freedom and the sense of achievement. After all, few things are more empowering than being one of the few humans who can defy gravity when the weather is good.
B.N. Willis knows that too well. The founder of Willis Gliderport west of Boynton Beach has had a couple of hard landings, one of them on Florida's Turnpike. A fellow Willis Gliderport pilot died in June 2000 when his experimental plane and a Learjet collided west of Boca Raton. Three aboard the jet also died.
But the 87-year-old plans to keep flying, even if he needs help getting into his sleek, white 17-foot glider.
"You don't think about that. Because it can't happen to you or me," he said of accidents. "I've been flying since 1941. Thank goodness, I'm still flying."
Willis has had other passions. He's played golf and lived on the water. But flying is the only thing that's stuck.
"It's beautiful to get up there. No noise. And you look down on the world," he said. "You forget all your troubles. They're gone. Until you get back on the ground."
Aircraft in the fly-in communities run the gamut, from small single-engine planes to helicopters to gliders. Some have just one or two seats and are open to the elements; others can hold as many has six people. Many are "experimental," a Federal Aviation Administration designation that means the plane was not built by a major manufacturer and can be repaired by the pilot. Residents range from professional pilots to folks who just fly for fun. A few even fly stunt planes, making loops and flips in the air.
These small planes give the pilot complete control, something Sam White learned seven years ago when he moved to Tailwinds, a fly-in community in Jupiter. The retired co-pilot for American Airlines had never flown small planes until he got a hangar next to his house. He now goes up in an open, two-seater Parasol wing plane that looks similar to something Snoopy would fly in his World War I flying ace fantasies. White even has the silk scarf, leather helmet and goggles.
"All of a sudden I could go wherever I wanted to," he said. "It was just loads of fun. It was much more fun than flying with the airlines."
Not everyone living in these neighborhoods flies. There are few female pilots, and some of the pilots' wives don't like to go up. White's wife, Silvia, stays on the ground and snaps photos. "I'm not in the right neighborhood," she cracked.
Hazel Skelton has a house on the runway in the Aero Club, but her hangar is full of exercise equipment and Christmas decorations, not planes. She said her family moved here in 1995 because her husband liked the planes and she liked the green space.
Skelton tried taking a couple of flying lessons. During her first lesson the instructor pointed the nose of the plane straight up, stalling the engine. All Skelton could see was sky. The only way to restart it was to dive. Skelton was terrified.
"It was really scary," she said. "It was, like, you could fall out of the air at any time."
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