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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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.”

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