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
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
(Page 3 of 6)
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).