Never in my life have I seen a plane like the Beaver.
Built in 1953 to serve as an Alaskan bush plane, it sat tall in pilot David Marco’s hangar at Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport, looking like the “half-ton, flying, pickup truck” that its designers once stated it was meant to be. With a giant propeller on the front, and huge floats below its wheels, it was obviously built to land on water.
And that’s what we were soon going to do.
Marco was planning to take me and photographer Woody Huband for a ride. Along the St. Johns River, he said, to Six Mile Creek. There we’d land, take pictures and then take off again.
But first I had a confession to make.
“I’m nervous in planes,” I said as I climbed into the front seat next to Marco.
He smiled. “You’re in a good one.”
Marco of Atlantic Beach only collects really good planes. Unique ones. Classic and rare. He restores them to the highest degree of perfection possible, and keeps them in his family’s hangar at Craig, surrounded by historic artifacts of each plane’s era, along with descriptive exhibit panels, and mannequins dressed in clothes from the time.
Marco grew up in an aviation family. His father Seymour flew B-24 bombers in World War II, and kept aviation as an avocation after the war, flying his family around the country, the Bahamas and South America. David and his brother Michael grew up as airplane enthusiasts, and became pilots when they were young. Michael was killed in a plane crash off Fernandina Beach in 1981, but David’s 22-year-old son, also named Michael, is a pilot, and an aviation instructor at Craig. David’s wife, Julie, also has her pilot’s license, but so far his 19-year-old daughter Hannah doesn’t show any interest in flying, and is an equestrian instead.
Marco started an informal organization five years ago called Generations in Aviation, which stands for the generations of his airplanes from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It also stands for the three generations of pilots in his family, as described in its website generationsinaviation.com.
As chief executive officer of his company, Marco Ophthalmic, he flies a corporate jet – a Citation CJ2+ – around the country. He keeps that at Craig along with The Beaver, a Canadian de Havilland DHC-2, capable of landing on land, water or snow; a 1938 Lockheed 12A, which has been called the Lear Jet of the 1930s; and a North American Aviation P-51 World War II fighter aircraft known as the “Mustang.”
Marco’s Mustang is currently undergoing its second restoration, and when it returns in about eight months he’ll keep it next to a museum-quality exhibit that he just completed that is the replica of the World War II airfield in England where the plane flew.
Inside a quonset hut are genuine historic artifacts from the time, including flags and a Nazi propaganda poster being used as a dart board. Photographs of World War II pilot Gerald Montgomery, who flew the Mustang named “Sizzlin Liz,” are also on display.
When Marco bought Sizzlin Liz years ago, he said it was “a material thing.” He took it to air shows, where it won many awards. It’s been on about 100 magazine covers.
But many World War II veterans who had flown in Mustangs would come up to him, with tears in their eyes, and tell him stories about their experiences on bomb runs over Germany because before the Mustang most of their buddies did not come back from their missions. So he realized that owning the plane was also about “a preservation of history and to honor World War II veterans.”
Mustangs were so fast and could fly so far without refueling, that many credit them with the Allies winning the war, Marco said. “I wanted one because it’s the most revered plane in the world.”
He wanted the Lockheed, “because it’s the sexiest plane every built.”
He bought his 1938 Lockheed four and a half years ago, and spent two and a half years restoring it. It took five people working on it fulltime to return it to its original configuration as a corporate plane for the Phillips Petroleum Company, and it’s now as shiny as the day it was new.
Marco likes its art deco style. “It’s the epitome of the deco era of aviation,” he said. “We put it back exactly the way Phillips had it. Same paint, same interior, same cockpit, all 1930s era. It’s really cool.”
He let Woody and I climb in, and showed us the walnut conference table that folds down between seats and the service bar with original thermos containers for coffee and water.
When Phillips executives flew, “you know the guys were in wool suits, smoking cigars and drinking scotch,” he said. ”You can just feel it.”
He wanted the Beaver because “it’s the greatest bush plane ever built,” he said. “Before the Beaver came along, Eskimo villages were serviced by dog sleds.”
I could also imagine what it would be like flying over the wilds of Alaska after we took off in the Beaver. It flies at a speed of 100 miles an hour, and for such a large plane took off and landed quickly.
Marco bought the plane 15 years ago, and just had it restored again. While the Mustang and Lockheed are show planes, the Marco family uses the Beaver for fun excursions, so while it has original configurations, it has modern conveniences such as a modern radio and up-to-date cockpit. De Havilland made the plane between 1947 and 1964, and some are still used by lodges in Alaska to fly fishermen and hunters around – but there aren’t too many left.
Marco has flown his Beaver to Maine and Minnesota, and one day might take it to Alaska.
“Why not?” he said. He has a 12-foot boat that fits in the back, behind the two back passenger seats, but sometimes takes kayaks instead. There’s even enough room to put sleeping bags for lake camping.
After we took off from Craig, we leveled off at 1,700 feet, amid wispy clouds that framed the St. Johns River below. Within minutes, Marco pointed out Green Cove Springs. “It’s pretty quick even though we’re only going 100 miles per hour,” he said. “No traffic lights.”
The plane was so smooth that I was soon able to relax and enjoyed the landing in a small creek off the river in St. Johns County. Woody climbed out onto one of the floats and took pictures.
Then it was time to go back.
“Is this the tricky part?” I asked as Marco prepared to take off from the water.
“No,” he said. “Nothing’s tricky if you’re good.”