Leesburg was abuzz in 1998 when it was announced that Villages Developer H. Gary Morse was planning to be build the largest hangar in the history of the city’s airport.
Slated to be a 95,000-square-foot building, the new hangar would be part of a complex and would replace a much smaller one that already was owned by Morse and used to house planes for trips back home to Michigan and other locations across the United States.
Management at Leesburg Regional Airport revealed that the new hangar would be able to house several planes – Morse would build up his corporate jet aircraft inventory over the years – and include office space as well. The lease also gave The Villages the opportunity to operate a commercial flight service, but Morse made it clear that the facility was for private use.
Site plans were being readied for the hangar complex, which were expected to be submitted to the city in a relatively short period of time. The largest hangar was expected to house an eight-seat jet owned by Morse, but was capable of holding larger planes, which Morse eventually would purchase and then employee a small group of pilots to fly them.
The airport, which offered The Villages a 20-year lease, had recently made improvements favorable to the larger aircraft Morse eventually would own, including repaving and adding an extension to one of its two runways.
In the summer of 1999, as Morse’s hangar on a two-acre plot began to take shape, it quickly became clear that it was going to look like no other building at the small airport, which was pretty much known in those days for older metal utility buildings. In fact, it towered above most of its neighbors and in some ways resembled a mansion of sorts, complete with trees, a sloping, shingled roof and covered parking.
The hangar was expected to be completed by the fall and was being constructed by Morse’s builders from his mega-retirement community. At the same time, they were busy building The Villages Polo Club, which was announced to include a three-story grandstand, a large banquet area and a third-level mezzanine.
Morse’s builders also were busy putting the final touches on the Savannah Center, which was to include a 1,025-seat auditorium. Villages lore has it that that building was the last project handed by Morse’s wife, Sharon, before her death in December 1999 from cancer. Longtime Villages employees have told the story of Sharon Morse, who served as design director of the community, being brought to the facility on a stretcher in her final days to make sure that every detail on the Savannah Center was up to her standards.
As far as the airport went, Morse was certainly no stranger to the facility or his aircraft housed there. In fact, at one time he owned four planes that were housed in his hangars. And it’s believed that on Oct. 5, 2014 – just 24 days before his death – he was in Michigan visiting family, as his Dassault Falcon 900 with the tail number of N902YP was photographed and looked somewhat out of place at the small Antrim County Airport in Northern Michigan.
Morse and his family members also used their jets to fly to various locations to spend time aboard the family’s 124-foot yacht named Cracker Bay. And throughout the years, many Villages management employees from the community’s various entities were sent on trips to the yacht aboard a corporate plane.
Morse, who like his father, Harold Schwartz, was known for putting the needs of his growing community first, didn’t hesitate to call on his aircraft arsenal when a tornado swept through the community on Feb. 2, 2007. Morse met up with one of his smaller planes on a desolate road in the compound where the family lives and within hours of the devastating storm was in the air scouting out the damage to his community.
Today, the Morse airport operation, labeled as The Villages Equipment Company on LinkedIn, stays quite busy. Those who live near the Leesburg airport surely have seen and heard large corporate jets taking off. And with the family’s jet-setting fourth generation now soundly entrenched in the management of the community, it’s a safe bet that the Morse family-owned planes will remain quite active and on the go to various places across the globe.