History of Thunderbird Airpark
Lt. Col. Norris Sauls and his wife Anne looked all over the world for a place to construct an airstrip. They considered properties in Colorado and the Bahamas. Both Norris and Anne had a personal connection to Florida having been born in the state.
At the time he was looking for property, Sauls was stationed in Washington D.C. where he worked as a Cryptanalyst for the National Indication Center at the Pentagon. Sauls would go on fishing trips to the Florida Keys and because there were no interstates at the time, he would travel down Highway 17. He passed through Crescent City once and stopped to inquire with a real estate broker about property in the area.
Sauls served a total of 27 years in the U.S. Air Force. He started in the U.S. Army Air Core where he served as a Bombardier on a B-24 with the 7th Air Force in the Asian Theater. He graduated flight school as a First Lieutenant, surviving World War II. Afterwards, he and his brother-in-law, Wallace Lowe, went into business together, opening an appliance service business.
Sauls re-enlisted when the Korean Conflict developed. He served as a Tail Gunner in a B-29. After the Korean Conflict he stayed the Air force and served active duty in Vietnam with Air Force Intelligence. At that time, he was stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, which was the largest Air Force installation in the world.
In 1963, Sauls, with wife and son Ive, moved to Colorado Springs where he worked for NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain. He was still looking for property while in active military service in the U.S. Air Force. He would leave on missions to South East Asia during the Vietnam Conflict.
In the same year, he purchased property that became Thunderbird Airpark. The 30 acres was a dead orange grove previously owned by Don Straker. He hired men with land clearing machinery to come and shape the land into a runway.
The Sauls finally moved to Florida in 1967, where they rented a house on the south end of Lake Como while their house was being built. The house was completed in the spring of 1968. Thunderbird Airpark’s original runway was only about 2000 feet. It was later extended to 3000 feet in the early 70’s, when he also constructed the Airpark’s first airplane hangar.
When Sauls moved to Florida to retire, he didn’t relax. He was instrumental in forming the first volunteer fire department in Lake Como, with an Army Surplus two and a half ton 6x6. He flew missions for the Division of Forestry, spotting forest fires from the air and directing fire personnel on the ground. In 1981, Governor Chiles awarded Sauls “Volunteer Fireman of the Year” honors.
Sauls would also fly volunteer missions to look for pot farms and missing people for local law enforcement as a special deputy. His proudest moment was when he found a missing elderly Alzheimer’s patient who had wandered away from his home in the Ocala forest. He thought of the discovery as divine intervention because sunlight just happened to shine on the missing man’s white hair as he flew over.
The Colonel, as many referred to him, would host charitable events at Thunderbird. One such event was the Fly-In Pig-Out which benefitted the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch and FFA. He and the local VFW would also host turkey shoots to raise money.
Sauls would go to the local schools to hold Americanism presentations which he, with the help of his wife Anne, would go over American History and the history of the American Flag. Sauls also organized a career day at Crescent City High School. He arranged for Coast Guard helicopters, sport and general aviation aircraft to fly in for display. He was even given permission to block off Highway 17 to allow the aircraft to land on the highway and taxi to the school’s parking lot.
Sauls contributed countless hours to the safety and betterment of Putnam County and its citizens. He continued his efforts until he passed away in 1995. A monument was erected at the Putnam County Emergency Management Office in Palatka to commemorate his achievements.