The People and Planes of Van Sant

Bucks County aviation fans found an ingenious way to preserve their grass-strip airport: They made it a county park

ARRIVING AT VAN SANT AIRPORT ON A SUMMER MORNING, you set down on an undulating grass strip cut along a ridge that overlooks deep woods, manicured horse farms, and the summer-shallow Delaware River. Van Sant Airport, elevation 309 feet, has a two-room operations shack, five hangars, and eight World War II-era Stearman Kaydets, along with miscellaneous general aviation and former military airplanes, plus a field full of gliders. There are no navigation aids beyond a wind indicator, no radios, and no runway lights. For amenities, there’s a phone booth, a pop machine, and, on warm weekends, a grill under the shade trees behind the office, where you can join airport regulars and visitors eating burgers and admiring the passing scene.

All day long, a parade of ground, air, and water craft comes through Van Sant—vintage sports cars, a replica Grumman amphibian, an elaborate ultralight, a husband and wife trailering his-and-hers competition sailplanes, a kit-built aerobatic stunter, a recreational helicopter, an SUV bearing a handmade wooden kayak, and many, many motorcycles. Today, the day ends with the appearance of a 1922 four-door Model T (“Running but definitely not restored,” explains the owner, head under the hood as he adjusts the idle).

It’s hard to believe Van Sant Airport is only about 50 miles due north of central Philadelphia and about 70 miles southwest of lower Manhattan.

Paul Ochadlick has been roaring across the grass field all morning at the controls of a Piper Pawnee, which is serving as a glider tug. Ochadlick grew up and still lives down the road from the airport. Having launched a dozen gliders this morning, he is supposed to go home and mow the lawn. Instead, he lingers by the Pawnee as his relief buckles himself into the cockpit and swings the jaunty ex-cropduster down the flightline, trailing a long yellow towrope.

Out on the grassy flightline, Ochadlick’s teenage son Greg is working as a line boy, wrestling the next glider into position, snapping home the tow hook, and, as the glider gathers speed, running a few steps alongside to hold a wing steady. Then tug and tow go bounding down the green and up into the clear blue.

“I can’t imagine a better place to start,” says his father.

Ochadlick started here, serving his time as a line boy, only he wasn’t a teenager. He was 36 in 1988, gainfully employed in aerospace materials marketing, when pilot fever suddenly seized him. To build his cockpit hours, he traded weekend sweat equity on Van Sant’s glider line for time in Van Sant’s flying school aircraft.

Now, with commercial ratings in both power aircraft and gliders, Ochadlick still finds it hard to tear himself away. “Maybe it’s the grass, but this field is a magnet for vintage airplanes from all over this region,” he says. “People in amazing aircraft just drop in for a hamburger, so you never know what you’ll see next. It’s almost like an airshow every weekend.”

No sooner said than a transient Ryan PG-22 Recruit touches down, a vision in blazing aluminum, yellow fabric, and U.S. star-and-roundel. The visitor taxis to a stop near Van Sant’s newest resident, a 60-year-old de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane in full Royal Air Force training livery, circa Battle of Britain.

The Tiger Moth is the pride and joy of airport operator Azhar Husain, who is leasing it for his flight school. Husain points out that unlike de Havilland’s earlier design, the Gypsy Moth, the Tiger Moth has a few features that made it a stalwart trainer: tailwheel, brakes, and an engine positioned upside down, to raise the prop out of harm’s way.

Husain offers me a hangar tour. First are the Stearmans, Van Sant’s signature airplane. They are decked out in everything from regulation Navy gray to bright check patterns. Van Sant may be the last place in America, says Husain, where a pilot with enough tail-dragger hours can check out in a Stearman and, once qualified, rent one on the same premises to solo.

Van Sant’s hangar tenants range from museum-quality pieces like a 1929 Travel Air Speedwing, which looks fresh from the factory, to resurrections-in-progress like the clipped-wing Super Cub that George Taylor, who runs a restoration shop at the airport, is rebuilding from bare bones. Elsewhere are Piper J-2s and J-3s, two Aeronca Champs, a Bellanca Super Decathlon aerobatic trainer, a vintage Great Lakes biplane, a Czech Zlin military trainer, a rare World War II primary trainer called a Meyers OTW, and a pea-green Broussard, a French military bushplane that from the nose resembles a de Havilland Beaver and from the twin tails a Lockheed Electra.

Van Sant aircraft owners range from the retired dentists, lawyers, and airline pilots who never seem to go home to the wealthy collectors who never seem to be around. There’s a church organist who flies his Kit Fox any day but Sunday. The Broussard belongs to an Australian stockbroker who uses it to haul his wife and kids around on weekends. And an elderly orange tom named Kitsy rules all under the title “Airport Cat.”

Despite its present fleet, Van Sant’s origins are about as humble and unexotic as you could imagine. In 1950, John Van Sant purchased a 300-acre farm near the town of Erwinna. Behind his farmhouse, he put up two hangar-size warehouses, mowed the pasture outside the back door, and got the Civil Aeronautics Administration to license the field as a personal-use airstrip. Though Van Sant already owned a small private airfield, it would soon be swallowed up by the Philadelphia suburbs, so the Erwinna farm was to be his fallback as well as the base for his growing sideline: buying and selling government-surplus aircraft parts.

In those years, Van Sant had a number of airplanes. His daughter, Linda Wegscheider, who still lives in the family farmhouse, remembers one Cub that Van Sant fitted with skis for wintertime commuting.

As Van Sant built up his business, he had his airstrip relicensed for commercial use as “Van Sant Airport” and leased it to a series of operators. From 1965 to 1977, lessees Bill and Mary Jo Smeala promoted gliding and the airport’s growing reputation for being antique-friendly. Then John Posey, a former Air Corps pilot who had picked up a surplus Stearman for his own amusement, took on the lease and promoted the airport with Stearman joy rides, Stearman banner towing, and Stearman flying lessons. (It helped that John Van Sant often dealt in Stearman parts.)

Posey died in 1986, and airport regulars quickly organized a proper send-off. “Just as we were coming out of the church,” recalls his son Mike, “we looked up and there they were, four Stearmans in the missing-man formation.”

The Smealas again took on the operating lease, and in the next decade, the airport’s popularity grew. But Van Sant’s increasing renown was not making all its neighbors happy. They objected to the noise—the throaty roar of the tow planes hauling sailplanes aloft all day long on busy weekends. In 1992, the local board of supervisors, bowing to pressure from some of the residents, passed an anti-noise ordinance.

Handed a cease-and-desist order threatening $500-a-day fines, the Van Sants and the Smealas went to federal district court. The judge ruled that the ordinance was an unconstitutional infringement on federal authority. The board appealed. The airport won again. A frosty truce ensued.

In 1996, Husain, then a flight instructor at Van Sant, stepped gingerly into the operator’s position. Over time, he replaced the noisy L-19 Bird Dogs with quieter Piper Pawnees and moved the start of morning operations to a later hour. Eventually, the neighbors began to realize that an old-time airfield wasn’t the worst of all possible neighbors. More neighbors, living in houses built on a defunct airport’s land, would be far worse.

The road that brought the diplomatic Husain to Van Sant was long and winding. As a young air cadet in Pakistan, Husain soloed in a Tiger Moth. When his eyesight kept him out of the Pakistan air force, he entered the banking trade, first in Britain and then in the United States. Still, he kept up his pilot’s ratings. When he arrived in New York in 1978 to manage his bank’s Wall Street branch, Husain joined the Soaring Society of America.

A letter soon arrived, welcoming new SSA members to check out the glider program at an airport near someplace called Erwinna. Thus international banker Husain eventually found his second calling in rural Pennsylvania. Commuting from Manhattan on weekends, Husain fit in immediately at Van Sant. First, he demonstrated his skills in acrobatic gliding; then he worked as a fledgling instructor, piling up weekend hours to qualify in both powered aircraft and sailplanes.

By 1981, Husain was eager to retire from banking, buy a house in Erwinna, and pursue his dream career: part-time flight instructor. His wife agreed to the move on the condition that she could keep her dream job in Manhattan: a technical designer for the fashion house Liz Claiborne. She’s commuted daily 70 miles each way ever since.

In 1996, with Van Sant’s operator lease once again available, the airport regulars—aircraft owners, mechanics, and instructors— decided among themselves that Husain had the best combination of flying and financial skills to operate the airport. He formed a tiny corporation, Sport Aviation, to lease the airport from the Van Sant family (John Van Sant had died 10 years earlier).

It didn’t take a Wall Street banker, though, to see the gaping hole in any long-term business plan for Van Sant. The land was worth far more than the airport.

Upper Bucks County is prime real estate: It’s where the outermost subdivisions of greater Philadelphia are threatening to bump into the outermost subdivisions of New York City and northern New Jersey. It’s also beautiful: horse country, country house country, summer house country. The uppermost part of Buck’s County is Tinicum Township. The residents are a mix of farming families, tradespeople, and heroic long-distance commuters, along with fourth-generation summer people, reclusive movie stars, and outsiders with new fortunes. The old money and the new have always flocked to Tinicum’s high ground.

Smack in the middle of this beautiful property is Van Sant Airport. It’s no wonder that more than one developer has envisioned turning the airport into a “McMansion” subdivision.

In 2003, the Bucks County Parks Department, Tinicum Township, and the Bucks County Airport Authority came up with a solution. The Bucks County Commissioners bought the airport and its 198.5 acres of woods and fields from the Van Sant family for $2.9 million. The surrounding land became a county park, and under the watch of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, Van Sant Airport will continue as is, or at least as it was in 2003: a daylight-only, no-instrument-landing grass strip, catering to vintage aircraft and gliders—but operating as a leased park concession, sort of like a rowboat rental or a hot dog stand.

On this sparkling June Saturday, the new deal seems to be working like a charm: Van Sant’s time warp is intact. It could be last year or it could be 1981, the year Craig Foster was last here. Foster, who has just touched down in a rented Cessna, has come over to the pilot’s lounge (under the shade trees) to introduce himself. He’d flown here this morning from Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia where he now lives and works in personnel recruiting.

Twenty-five years ago, Foster says, he all but lived at Van Sant. In 1976, when he was 13, the minimum legal age, he signed up for glider lessons. Every weekend his parents drove him to and from Van Sant, 45 minutes each way. At 14, he soloed here in a glider. Two years later, he soloed in a powered craft. “It’s still the same,” he says in mild astonishment, “the same rolling runway I remember, the same buildings, the same everything.”

From the west, a Van Sant regular makes his final approach, swooping sharply to land short and roll straight to his starting place on the glider flightline. It’s a white, two-place German sailplane, a Grob-103 Akros. It belongs to Freedom’s Wings International, a non-profit organization that takes disabled people soaring. Since 1986, the organization has been using Van Sant as its base.

The Grob’s pilot is Bill Murphy, a gruff ex-Marine helicopter pilot who lost the use of his legs in a 1978 helo crash. His passenger is Will Keech, a graduating senior at Pennsylvania’s West Chester College who was born with cerebral palsy and relies on an elaborate motorized wheelchair to get around on the ground. Will’s father, Everett Keech, is waiting on the grass with the wheelchair as Murphy brakes the glider to a stop and pops the canopy.

In the front seat, Will Keech is flushed, sweaty, and whooping with excitement. While line boys carefully detach the canopy, four bikers in denims and tattoos who have been watching from the shade volunteer to lift Keech from the cockpit and into his wheelchair. Once in the chair, he seizes the joystick controller, spins to face his father, and launches into a detailed account of cutting circles over Upper Bucks during the last hour and 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, Murphy uses his powerful arms to lever himself out of the back seat, and, once his feet are out and his lightweight hand-powered wheelchair scooted within reach, he hops out. We get to talking, and Murphy tells me that he was one of the organization’s early passengers. “I hated every minute of it,” he confesses of the flight. Being a useless passenger in an engine-less glider only reminded him of how far he’d fallen.

But later, Murphy became intrigued by the flying ability of Freedom’s Wings instructor and president, Ray Temchus, a quadriplegic with limited use of his left hand. In 1988, flying a glider equipped with hand-operated rudder controls, Temchus became the first quadriplegic to be certified as a soaring instructor by the Federal Aviation Administration. If Temchus could do that one-handed, Murphy figured that with both arms, he couldn’t wimp out.

Temchus taught him the basics. Then he showed Murphy the thrills of ridge soaring, playing tag with low-altitude updrafts kicked up along the face of the Appalachian front range. “Being able to soar like a bird is pretty much everybody’s dream,” says Murphy, “but it just seems extra special to take someone out of a wheelchair, put them in a glider, and show them that they can soar.”

Eventually Temchus moved to Florida, and last year Murphy became president of Freedom’s Wings. Today, I hop into the front seat of his glider so he can show me the possibilities 3,000 feet above Van Sant.

Sailplanes are supposed to be smooth and silent, but there’s nothing rougher and noisier than a glider being dragged down a rutted grass strip, especially if your seat is just above its single, unforgiving wheel. Bang bang bump you go, until—whoosh—the glider hops into the air, a kite on a string headed for 3,000 feet. Then it’s smooth.

From the back seat of the Grob, Murphy shouts: “Get hold of the yellow release lever and give it a yank!” The tow plane buzzes away left while Murphy turns the glider right.

Suddenly it’s silent.

Coming around to the east, you can just make out in the distance the Manhattan skyline in miniature. Off to the south, there’s high-rise central Philadelphia. Below, George Washington’s Delaware is full of summer boaters. Murphy noses into a thermal and the variometer jumps upward. With no engine but the sun, the glider’s great white wings take you higher and higher. Van Sant Airport waits to take you back.

Sidebar: The Details

VAN SANT AIRPORT (9N1) is at 516 Cafferty Road, Erwinna, PA 18920; (610) 847-8320. By car, it’s about an hour and a quarter from Philadelphia. The airport is closed to transient air traffic from December through April. About 85 aircraft are based on the field—two-thirds single-engine, one-third gliders. About 80 operations occur each day. Glider and powered aircraft rides, lessons, and rentals are available.

Sidebar: Don't Miss...Your Bucks' Worth

Dining: In Frenchtown, NJ, try Cucina del Sol (Mexican) or Race Street Cafe (American). In Doylestown, PA, there’s Madame Butterfly (Japanese) and Paganini (Italian).

Other Attractions: Van Sant is in prime vacation country: Bucks County. Visitors can go tubing, canoeing, and hot-air ballooning; shop for antiques; visit art galleries and artist studios; and tour historic sites. And the region boasts bed-and-breakfasts galore.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.