Summer comes early in South Florida. Temperatures rise into the 80s and 90s while much of the north is still contending with melting snow, cold wind-driven rain, and yet one more oil delivery to keep the furnace running.
It’s on such a day that I sit at a picnic table across from George Chase, president of the Friends of Arcadia Airport. He’s not just the president, though. He’s truly the driving force behind the organization. For all the volunteers and community involvement he’s been able to garner over the years, nobody — and I mean nobody — puts in the hours or the effort George has.
The fruits of that labor are clearly evident to anyone wandering to the north side of this rural, non-towered airport. Behind the T-hangars sits a pilot shelter. This is where George and I are passing the time on a warm Spring morning.
A stand of oaks surrounds the shelter, giving us significant shade, which keeps us cool even as the sun rises higher in the sky and the temperature soars. A light breeze through the open shelter helps too.
It’s not just possible, but openly encouraged for pilots to fly into this little slice of southern fried heaven and stay a while. Upon arrival you can opt for the ramp just outside the FBO, or you can head for the shaded grass of the campground. You can tie-down your aircraft, pitch a tent, and spend a few days luxuriating in the peace and quiet that comes with being far from the hustle and bustle of urban living, yet less than two miles from shopping and familiar chain restaurants, as well as local mom and pop outlets.
Arcadia is a small town with a population of fewer than 10,000 residents. This is legitimate cowboy country. Cattle were and continue to be the big business in these parts, and it isn’t at all uncommon for a rodeo to break out.
It’s also home to citrus groves, leisurely canoe trips down slow-moving waterways, and more antique shops than you can shake a stick at.
The historic downtown won’t make you believe you’ve stepped into the Old West, or the Old South, but the imagination doesn’t have to work very hard to conceptualize what it must have been like to walk these same streets in the middle of the last century, or even earlier.
The problem with a small, out of the way, rural outpost like Arcadia, Florida is it’s a bit inconvenient to get to by surface roads. By air, however, Arcadia is an easy hop from almost anywhere in Florida.
George Chase recognized that years ago and got to work making his Mayberry-esque home town airport a bit more accessible and a lot more inviting to pilots arriving from elsewhere.
George and his team started with the establishment of the campground. A wide expanse of grass allows ample space for airplanes and their occupants.
Then came the pilot shelter. The addition of a fire pit was a welcome improvement. Recently they’ve added a basic but beautifully built set of restroom facilities and showers.
It’s not exactly glamping (glamorous camping), but it’s sure headed in that direction.
My wife and I flew in a couple years ago to participate in a fly-in/camp-out with the Friends of Arcadia Airport and the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF). We had a marvelous time with a great crowd of fellow aviators and their families. After the sun set and dinner was done, more than a dozen of us gathered around the fire pit with our guitars and our best intentions to serenade each other into slumber. It worked too.
That was one heck of a great weekend.
More often than not the campers arrive in one or two airplanes — although organized fly-in events with a much larger draw aren’t unheard of at Aviation City.
The name was given to Arcadia Airport in 1920 when aviation was in its infancy. George and the Friends recaptured the designation and applied it to the campground facilities, which are expanding and finding acceptance in much the way aviation itself did early on.
What George and the Friends of Arcadia Airport have done is remarkable. Not because they are the first to ever think to make a general aviation airport more inviting and accessible to an ever-widening population of visitors.
No, what’s remarkable is that they’ve actually done it. They’ve successfully transitioned from an idea to a discussion, and from a discussion to a ground-breaking, and then continued to build on their vision — both literally and figuratively.
The summer heat and humidity are creeping into our latitude as George and I sit under the shade of the pilot shelter, enjoying the sounds of nature coming from the green-belt that surrounds us, alternately sharing happy memories and hopeful dreams about this place. It’s quiet. It’s serene. It’s just about perfect, in fact.
It would warm my heart to see airplanes and tents and campers at Aviation City when I visit this Fall. And I’m sure there will be, as there have been in years past. As the temperatures cool, the humidity falls, and the population of Florida swells with snowbirds, I have no doubt Arcadia will once again begin to see new faces wander into their restaurants, their antique shops, and into the stands at the rodeo. At least some of those folks will have come from the airport, thanks to George and his crew.
Good for George. Good for the Friends. Good for Arcadia.
Now, if we could bottle what the Friends of Arcadia Airport have done, ship it in large quantities across the land, and help others do the same thing at their local airport, imagine what the benefits might be to your town, your airport, and you.