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Where pilots roost

Eagles Nest: A Florida airpark community that flies together

Cathy Toller enjoys her mornings. Most days she awakens to the hum and roar of aircraft taking off outside her bedroom window. Her friends—and possibly her husband—are enjoying their “dawn patrol,” flying their Cubs and Cessnas down the 3,200-foot-long grass strip located in her backyard.
Photography by David Tulis.
Zoomed image
Pilots Doug Vayda in a CubCrafters Super Cub on floats and Bob Dobry in a Bellanca Scout on floats enjoy a ‘dawn patrol’ morning flight in the Flagler Beach, Crescent City, and Eagle’s Nest area if Central Florida, February 25, 2024. Photo by David Tulis.

Or taking off at the seaplane base on the nearby lake. The friends take their aircraft out by 7:30 a.m. to fly for coffee and breakfast at nearby airports or other friends’ homes or to land on the St. Johns River and share the beautiful morning light. Cathy will rise, descend down to her kitchen, and pour herself a cup of coffee.

“We call it the music of the house,” she says of the sounds of aircraft outside her home.

Cathy and Rick Toller have lived on the grass runway at Eagles Nest Aerodrome in Crescent City, Florida, for more than 15 years. Rick is the president of the Eagles Nest Homeowners Association. The couple started looking for an on-airport property in 2006. Living in Orlando, Rick was retiring, and the couple wanted to share a home with Cathy’s father. A 1,500-hour pilot, Rick had a Lake Buccaneer, so he wanted access to water, and the couple wanted a home close enough to Orlando because Cathy was still working. They drove around the area and were surprised to see a grass strip and windsock on a country road in northern Florida (Eagles Nest is about 35 miles inland from St. Augustine).

“We fell in love right away,” says Cathy.

Family affair

At the time, real estate at Eagles Nest was sold by Julie Fetcko who called herself the “Albatross Lady” because she and her husband, John, owned a Grumman HU–16 Albatross based at Eagles Nest. The Fetckos liked the place so much they bought out the developer. A pilot, she got her real estate license, started selling, and eventually developed five airparks in addition to marketing private airport properties.

The Tollers bought a lot from Julie Fetcko and built an 1,800-square-foot home as well as a 60-by-60-foot hangar with an apartment for her dad. Rick agreed to serve as president of the Eagles Nest HOA and handles tasks such as mowing the grass strip and maintaining the facilities, although members of the community pitch in and organize workdays.

John and Julie Fetcko had a house on the lake and a large hangar for their Albatross. Sadly, John was killed and Julie severely injured in an aircraft accident in 2012. She died in 2022. Last year, Norm and Teresa Nelson bought the Fetcko home and sold the hangar to Bill and Darcie Calden. Norm Nelson is a retired U.S. Navy pilot and owned a BMW dealership in St. Augustine. He and Teresa had previously lived at Eagles Nest and regretted moving away. When the Fetcko home became available, they wanted to return but did not want the large hangar and real estate office. Down the road from the Fetcko house is the winter home of Harvey and Betty Calden of Maine. Harvey is a pilot, as is his son Bill. Bill and Darcie jumped at the chance to purchase the hangar, and they created a home in the former real estate office.

“We wanted a big hangar with a little house,” says Darcie who, when dating Bill, had accompanied him on a ferry flight. They’d landed at the owner’s home, and she’d seen her first hangar home and told Bill she thought that was a great way to live.

“I knew she was a keeper,” says Bill.

The couple have created a small home in the former office with innovative ideas and creative interior projects such as tool chests for cabinets in the kitchen and rooms to accommodate grandkids and the couple’s dogs. Bill is an A&P and has become the unofficial neighborhood caretaker and tinkerer. He works on residents’ aircraft and Darcie brings him coffee they share in the hangar, and they share work on the field.

“We are the babies,” she says of the significant age difference between most of the residents. “We find we are helping a lot of people out and enjoying it. The people here find us amusing, like wondering what the two of us are up to now. We keep everyone amused.”

Of the 27 homes, only about nine are occupied by year-round residents. The Caldens return to Maine each summer to run their fishing camps, and others live across the country and world; there are owners from Great Britain and Germany. The Tollers and the Nelsons spend most of their time here. “We just love it here. It’s very relaxing,” says Cathy Toller.

The Splash-In

On this breezy day in late February, Eagles Nest is preparing for its yearly winter Splash-In sponsored by the Seaplane Pilots Association. This annual event is by invitation and area pilots fly in or drive in for camaraderie and lunch. The Caldens have discovered that their home and hangar are the perfect spot for the luncheon and have “volunteered” to organize and cater it. The Fetcko Albatross is on display on their ramp (it has since been sold), and resident Doug Vayda is manning the walkie-talkies, landing the land and seaplanes that arrive after 10 a.m. It’s a sporty wind so many who do fly in arrive later than usual, and there are not as many seaplane arrivals. However, those that do come follow Vayda’s instructions, the seaplanes touching down on Lake Estella and use the ramp to park up on the field.

“We welcome all of our best friends for a big lunch and a nice afternoon,” says Vayda, a 23-year resident of the airpark. He, too, purchased his home from Julie Fetcko. “I was looking for a flying community, and I stopped here as a guy was putting a For Sale sign out in front of his house and I said to him, ‘I’m buying your house, just don’t take me for too much.’”

Vayda wanted “to do things differently” and use his aircraft for transportation to and from work. He worked in St. Augustine and is now as an Extra Aircraft representative and test pilot in the United States (see “Great Expectations,” April 2024 AOPA Pilot). “I worked out of St. Augustine for many years; if I drove, it would take me an hour or more. With my aircraft [an RV-8], I’m there in 14 minutes.”

Vayda is one of the organizers and frequent participants in the daily Dawn Patrol. It’s one of his favorite parts of living at Eagles Nest. “Most every morning the neighborhood stirs, and four or five seaplanes take off and we go to eat breakfast somewhere or find a beach somewhere. I’ve even tied up on the St. Johns River and had breakfast with the manatees.”

The annual Splash-In is crowded and then over before you know it. About 70 aircraft have landed and taken off. The visitors have enjoyed a barbecue spread of chicken and pork, baked beans, and cornbread. They drop $5 bills into a donation jar at the end of a table. Then they return to their aircraft and the air buzzes with departures. It started at 11 a.m. and is clear by 3 p.m. Over at the Nelsons, more food is being served and it looks like the partying will continue.

Where pilots roost

  • Where pilots roost
    Photography by David Tulis.
  • Where pilots roost
    Eagles Nest Aerodrome is nestled in pine and oak trees in north central Florida and has a 3,200-foot-long grass runway maintained by owners as well as a seaplane landing site on a lake that is two-thirds owned by the HOA.
  • Where pilots roost
    Resident Doug Vayda (pink shirt) is one of the volunteers who help organize and direct the community’s annual “Splash-In,” which welcomes seaplanes, land planes, and those who drive in through Florida’s rural areas for lunch.
  • Where pilots roost
    Photography by David Tulis.
  • Where pilots roost
    Resident Norm Nelson was a BMW motorcycle dealer who participated in the Cannonball Endurance Run on the 1929 motorcycle he proudly displays in his home’s living room.
  • Where pilots roost
    It’s a wonderful community to share with neighbors and friends.” —Teresa Nelson.
  • Where pilots roost
    I can’t explain it; it makes me happy that he gets so excited to live here. It’s not something everyone does.” —Darcie Calden. Bill and Darcie Calden found the former community real estate office a perfect spot for a small home connected to their big hangar.
  • Where pilots roost
    Tool boxes were used as cabinets in the kitchen.
  • Where pilots roost
    Residents keep lots of varieties of toys in their hangars; some don’t even have airplanes.
  • Where pilots roost
    But Rick Toller’s Lake Buccaneer is a classic on the field; an apartment above the hangar is offered to friends and family.
  • Where pilots roost
    Doug Vayda flies his Super Cub over the community on his way to a “Dawn Patrol” breakfast.
  • Where pilots roost
    Resident Doug Vayda skims his airplane along the St. Johns River, enjoying the challenge of the river’s glassy surface.
  • Where pilots roost
    Some residents are seasonal but keep their homes as well-maintained as Toller keeps the field and grounds.
  • Where pilots roost
    It’s very relaxing; you hear airplane noise and it’s nice to look out a window and see who is coming in. —Cathy Toller. Rick Toller is the president and airport manager for Eagles Nest. He and wife Cathy are year-round residents.
Julie Walker
Julie Summers Walker
AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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