Monday, November 14, 2016

Gliding through a time warp in Upper Bucks, Pennsylvania

Wynne Wert is the kind of person Johnny Van Sant would have appreciated. Wynne and I worked together when I was Lifestyles editor at the Bucks County Courier Times.

In our conversations, I learned she was a United Airlines flight attendant back when flying was glamorous. Receiving an invitation to ride in a blimp over Philadelphia, I asked her if she’d like to join me. She jumped at the opportunity and off we went. Months later, she took to the air again for a first-person adventure in a hot air balloon race.

I've retired since then but we stay in touch. I thought of her in researching the life of Van Sant, who founded a sailplane airport in a remote section of Tinicum in Upper Bucks. I suggested we soar in one of his gliders and enjoy the autumn leaf change from a mile high over the Delaware River. It also was a chance to recall an aviation pioneer.

Born into a Bensalem farming family in 1912, Van Sant developed a childhood fascination with aircraft. Barnstorming pilots hopped about the country, landing on sod airfields in their bi-planes to offer rides to kids like Johnny.

By the 1920s, he was taking flight training from test pilot Bill Engle, national aerobatics champion Rod Jocelyn, and Art Scholl who did all the flying for the movie “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

In 1944, Van Sant founded the Old Star Airport on Lincoln Highway in Middletown where he specialized in crop-dusting, aerial photography, flight lessons and hugely popular acrobatic air shows. He also purchased a 300-acre, hilltop farm off Cafferty Road in Tinicum where he turned pastures into grass landing fields with hangars to service antique aircraft and sell government surplus parts.

By the late 1950s, he sold Old Star which would become Oxford Valley Mall. He also bought and sold Doylestown Airport before turning all attention to his airfield in Tinicum where he based gliders and vintage aircraft. With his death in 1981, his family continued the business through 2003 when it sold the airfield to county government for preservation. The property today is leased to Dannie and Bar Eisenhauer of Bird of Paradise, which caters to rare aircraft and offers rides in bi-planes and gliders.

Many view Van Sant as “the greatest airfield on the planet.” Operations include a two-room, 1940s-style operations shack replete with Big Band music, five hangars and an array of general aviation and former military planes. Of interest to Wynne and I was taking turns soaring like a bird in one of the gliders. My daughter Genevieve and grandkids Dashiell and Margaux provided our land-based peanut gallery.

Pilot Dominik Tomanek would use foot pedals, a joystick and an instrument panel to fly our 2-person glider on 20-minute joyrides over beautiful Bucks County. Airport regular and glider owner Bruce Weber attached the trailing line from a tow plane to the nose of our motorless glider, assuring us the sailplane was big enough to “easily penetrate” high winds overhead.

Another attendant gripped one tip of the 50-foot-long wing, steadying it and giving a thumbs up to the idling tow plane. It roared down the grass runway, lifting us off the sod. Within minutes, we were 3,600 feet high.

At Dominik’s signal, a pull knob detached the tow line. Free of the tow plane, we soared past Lake Nockamixon, Haycock Mountain and the Delaware River with distant views of the Philadelphia skyline. The county below was a patchwork quilt of farms, fields and estates, etched by woodlands and creeks wrapped in autumn splendor. The only sound was the flow of air over our wraparound canopy.

Dominik brought the glider to a stationary position against a stiff west-to-east airstream. “We’re floating just like a balloon,” he said, the plane motionless above the airfield. With a tailwind, the glider sped up to 100 knots, dipping and turning, dancing in the sky to spectacular views before settling gently on the runway where the grandkids ran to greet us.

Stepping from the cockpit, Wynne adjusted the powder blue United Airlines flight cap she’s treasured for 60 years. “Wow!” she smiled. The beauty of Bucks County seen on high, she added, reminded her of a line from her favorite play. “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

1 comment:

  1. My mom was a pilot and she flew at the Old Star Airport. Do you have any more pictures of the airport?