Devoted airplane pilots find a home in Lake and Sumter counties.
Grass Roots Airpark
Outside the 1920s-style bungalow clubhouse at Grass Roots Airpark is a marble compass engraved with the inscription, “Seek and ye shall find.”
It’s an apt phrase for pilots looking for space to roam or a place to land. Lake and Sumter counties are home to fly-in communities, small public airports, and private grass airstrips that may be overlooked by passing motorists but are well-known to anyone flying overhead.
The counties’ rural nature, open spaces, and great flying weather attract recreational pilots. And aviation communities, where residents park in a hangar rather than a garage, cater to diehard enthusiasts who find passage to the open skies in their own backyards.
“I’ve been flying around all my life and looking down and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t that be a great place to have an airport?’” says David Gay, an architect who fulfilled his dream by designing and building Grass Roots Airpark in Groveland.
David spent two years looking for property before he found a cow pasture east of County Road 33. He built homes and a 3,400-foot-long turf runway from scratch, and in 2005, opened a beautifully designed and maintained airfield at 20201 Whistling Wire Lane in a scenic locale surrounded by lakes and ranches.
Homes and hangars have a vintage touch. The site includes 18 residential lots on the runway; 12 wooded residential lots with runway access via a grass taxiway; nine hangar lots owned by pilots; rental hangars for 32 planes; and the home of David and his wife, Ann.
He designed the airpark with fly-ins in mind: an open, central area comfortably parks up to 40 antique biplanes and Piper Cubs, and periodic fly-ins attract anywhere from 100-300 people.
The nine hangar lots, known as the Low & Slow Flying Club, come with attached pilot lounges that include a game or hobby room, full kitchen and bath, dining area, and enclosed patio—a great hangout for pilots and friends who fly in to visit.
Rich Feroldi, of Winter Springs, owns one of the hangars, which holds his transportation toys: 1929 American Eagle biplane, Champ airplane, antique Ford truck, radio-controlled model planes, and a motorcycle.
“We like the vintage ambience. That’s what we like the best, and it’s just a beautiful place with a great group of people,” Rich says. “It’s a great social life, too. I’ve met more friends out here than I met in 25 years where I live.”
Jim Danbom, Don Disher, and Terry Sharp are friends from Tavares who rent hangars. The three of them spent one morning swapping stories about planes, pilots, and flying incidents.
“This is a great little airport,” says Don, noting that his concern over rental fees was eased by a philosophical observation from his girlfriend: “She’s like, ‘You’re not paying rent, you’re paying country club dues.’ You come out here, it’s a nice gathering, nice people.”
David has carved out an idyllic life for himself and fellow pilots. The Orlando native says he’s glad to be out in the country because “it just smells better out here.”
“I enjoy living here,” he says. “You know, it’s old Florida.”
Umatilla Municipal Airport
Drive east off State Road 19 onto Cassady Street and through a neighborhood and you will dead-end at a small, out-of-the-way airfield. But Umatilla Municipal Airport is anything but a dead end for fliers. In fact, the future of local aviation can be found there.
The city, Umatilla High School, and Lake County Schools have formed an Aviation Club at the school and Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1632 at the airport. The city-owned public airport acquired a flight simulator with the help of an educational grant and set up a training room, City Manager Scott Blankenship says.
Students soon will construct an experimental kit plane, a Van’s RV12 two-seat, single-engine model, and they also have access to free ground school training online. Airport events such as Young Eagles Day also attract students for free plane rides and other activities.
It’s all part of the city’s proactive approach to stirring youngsters’ interest in aviation.
“We’re just trying to stay engaged in the community,” says Scott, who manages the airport and is a licensed pilot.
Umatilla Municipal Airport, 480 E. Cassady St., has one of only two paved runways, along with Leesburg International Airport, in all of Lake County. The hangars contain about 25 aircraft, and the city plans to add hangars on adjoining property to accommodate owners on a wait list. Pilots like the airfield’s low fuel prices, and between fuel and hangar revenue, the airport supports itself, Scott says.
“One thing nice about our airport is we’re to the north of all the major metro area, so pilots that fly out at the airport pretty much immediately are in a nice environment to fly,” Scott says.
The majority of the users are recreational aviators, City Clerk Karen Howard says. For example, around 11am each Wednesday, several pilots from the Spruce Creek aviation community in Port Orange fly in and use an airport courtesy car to go to lunch in Umatilla.
One recent morning, pilot and instructor Tom Eby, of Sanford, and students Luis Ruiz, of Orlando, and Reuben Nusbaum, of Sanford, arrived in a single-engine plane for a lesson.
Tom says the Umatilla airport is ideal for training because it’s quiet, has far less traffic than Orlando airspace, and the short 2,500-foot runway and crosswinds offer a good test for student pilots.
The students say training is not cheap and not easy, but it is a lot of fun. Reuben, studying for his private pilot’s license, says the Umatilla airport is a well-kept secret that provides great preparation for flight evaluations.
Luis, who wants to be a commercial airline pilot, says he wouldn’t trade the thrill of flying for anything.
“It’s always been my passion since I was a little kid of 6,” he says. “My mom would take me to the airport to watch the airplanes.”
In many ways, the Umatilla airport is bridging the past to the future. Steve Austin, who volunteers as an airport ambassador, says his father, Elmer Austin, helped construct the airport in the late 1940s.
“It’s the best little airport in the area,” he says.
Calvin Reynolds can relax on his porch and watch planes take off—his beautiful home is situated alongside the north-south airstrip at tranquil Love’s Landing aviation community.
“It’s the ultimate,” he says. “If you’re an aviation enthusiast, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
Love’s Landing, at 41524 Kittyhawk Drive, has a Weirsdale mailing address but is partially in both Lake and Marion counties, says owner/manager Sam Love. It’s bound to the north by Southeast 160th Avenue Road and to the south by Marion County Road.
More than 60 residences are home to active pilots, airplane builders, and restorers. Every homeowner is required to have a pilot’s license. The community looks like any other neighborhood except the custom-built homes have either attached or detached hangars. Airplanes have the right of way on the streets, which are taxiways to two grass runways. The community is still growing, as several new homes are being built and Sam has plans for 10 more lots on the west side of the north-south runway.
Calvin splits his year between Maine and Love’s Landing, where he chose to live because of its rural similarity to his home state.
“I like being able to look out my back door and see cows,” Calvin says. “My wife (Marianne) and I, if we can’t smell cow manure, we ain’t happy. We’re country people. Love’s Landing is more like a Maine community. It’s very tight-knit, it’s country, more laid-back people.”
The large hangar next to his house contains a Carbon Cub Light Sport SS bush plane and an experimental, home-built plane that reaches 200 mph.
“It’s a motorcycle in the air is what it is,” Calvin says. “I like to go up and just cruise and look at the countryside.”
For the Love family, the countryside was all citrus groves until severe freezes in the 1980s wiped out their business. Sam, his brother, John, and their late father, also named Sam, ventured into the airpark concept in the mid-1990s. John, who died in 2018, was the pilot in the family, always trying to land his Super Cub in a hayfield, says Sam, who taught agriculture for 40 years at local high schools and, ironically, never learned to fly.
“We were trying to find something that we could be passionate about,” Sam says. “We just thought it’d be a great idea to do. It wasn’t a necessity; we could’ve turned it into cow pasture or planted palm trees.”
Clinton Goodhue, also a Maine snowbird, has lived at Love’s Landing for 16 years, settling there after looking at many similar communities.
“I thought, ‘This is the one,’” says Clinton, a Piper Cub owner who flies with his neighbors each week to DeLand for lunch. “It’s the neatest and cleanest, and it’s also close (to The Villages).”
Everybody seems to know each other at Love’s. If one resident is outside tinkering with his plane, a small group soon gathers.
“We’ve got some really great people here, we really do,” Sam says. “The comradeship among pilots is like any interest group. They all have a common interest and a common goal and that’s what makes it work.”
Rural Sumter County makes a perfect setting for numerous grass airstrips laid out alongside cow pastures and horse farms or dropped in the middle of neighborhoods.
FreeFlight Airport operates out of rustic offices at 1511 Taylor Ave. in a Coleman residential subdivision, where a children’s playground and baseball diamond are across the street. The airport’s 4,170-foot runway is one of the longest private turf airstrips in Florida, according to its website.
Owner Frank Arenas, who bought the airport in 1995, helped create the Village Flyers, a club for pilots of light-sport aircraft. The two-seaters weigh just a bit more than 1,300 pounds and don’t exceed 138 mph. Light-sport pilots can prove their medical fitness simply by having a valid driver’s license.
“They’re pretty docile airplanes,” Frank says. “The nice thing for the pilots around here, as we all age, if you’re on a light-sport, you don’t have to worry about your medical as long as you can drive a car.”
Frank also lives on the grounds, about 800 feet from the runway. The former professional skydiver guided a skydiving school at the airport for 10 years. On the horizon, he plans to build 200 hangars on the site to meet high demand in Central Florida. He says it’s a “blast” to operate an airport in his backyard.
“It’s just an absolute pleasure,” he says. “Your office is in the sky, as a lot of the skydivers say.”
Backyard runways come in all varieties. Though Connell’s Wahoo Airport runs along the east side of Interstate 75, it’s still in the “ruralest” of rural areas of Bushnell. Drivers on County Road 614A pass a sign that reads, “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner. Connell’s Brangus. Cattle—Hay for Sale.” Cattle graze in the distance on the property owned by Jim and Patricia Connell. The 160 acres include their home and hangar, and a 3,000-foot private airstrip that hosts fly-ins attracting as many as 80 airplanes, Jim says.
Just west of I-75, along County Road 48 in Bushnell, motorists may notice an airport road sign and wonder, “Where?” But a short drive north on County Road 316A reveals Flying W Airranch Airport, a fly-in community of several homes with detached hangars for single-engine planes. A short grass runway sits smack dab in the middle of the tiny neighborhood.
No one would know the airfield is there without stumbling upon it. But as pilots in Lake and Sumter counties know, seek and ye shall find.