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Florida's air commuters take high way

It's rush hour without traffic or cars. Despite the risks, many prefer a home with a hangar and runway.

January 20, 2008|Stephanie Horvath | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

David Prince's morning commute takes eight minutes.

Not bad when you're traveling about 30 miles in southern Florida, 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 Aero Club in Wellington. "And there's a nice sunrise and sunset."

Such is the life for those who live in southern Florida's fly-in communities, where homes have hangars instead of garages, runways instead of fairways and neighbors recognize one another by the sound of their plane engines.

In Palm Beach and Broward counties, there are 385 homes in five fly-in communities, among about 600 fly-in neighborhoods in the country.

They are the places where people like Charles Scherer feel safer in their small aircraft than in 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 has kept him out of the air the last eight months. Nor has the broken back he's 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 has 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 last 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 million licensed drivers. According to those statistics, fatal small-plane crashes occur at a higher rate in Florida than fatal car accidents.

"Flying is serious business," said Richard Trembley, a retired insurance executive living in the Aero Club. "It's inherently safe, but inherently unforgiving."

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.

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 Willis, 87, 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 has played golf and lived on the water. But flying is the only thing that has 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 and gliders. Some have just one or two seats and are open to the elements; others can hold as many as six. 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.

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 American Airlines copilot had not flown small planes until he got a hangar next to his house. He now goes up in an open two-seat Parasol wing plane that looks similar to something Snoopy flies in his World War I flying-ace fantasies. White even has the silk scarf, leather helmet and goggles.

"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 cracks.

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 and stalled the engine. All Skelton could see was sky. The only way to restart the engine was to dive.

"It was really scary," she said. "It was, like, you could fall out of the air at any time."

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