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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.

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