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 4 of 6)
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.