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

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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.

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