General aviation took flight in Bucks County with neighborhood airports that faded away.
Afternoons are magical at Van Sant Airport in Tinicum Township in Upper Bucks. A more beautiful hilltop airport for antique aircraft would be hard to find. A large hanger is filled with biplanes and other vintage aircraft known to take off and land on the sod field with some frequency. The airport’s one-room flight shack oozes 1930s and 1940s big band music. Aircraft are parked nearby for easy viewing. My family visits now and then to absorb this rare postcard of aviation history.
We also take Elephant Path Road in Bedminster where a community of modern homes is served by a sod landing strip for light aircraft. We’re googly-eyed driving by in hopes of seeing a Cessna or Piper Cub touching down. Seemingly there’s a plane for every garage. Eighty years ago that fantasy seized the imagination. The quest was to own a plane parked at local airports in Morrisville, Falls, Middletown, Bristol, Bristol Township, Bensalem and elsewhere. Here’s a roll call.
Fleetwing, Radcliffe Street, Bristol and Green Lane airfield, Bristol Township, 1925-1949.
Fleetwing Corp. designed and built a variety of aircraft including the world’s first stainless steel seaplanes. Its Green Lane test flight airfield eventually hosted private aircraft in the 1940s. The Fleetwing factory produced aircraft prototypes including “Twirleybird” helicopters.
Silver Star/Old Star Airport, Lincoln Highway, Middletown, 1927-1971.
This airport began life as “Silver Star Airport Langhorne”. The first dispatch of airmail from Bucks lifted off here in 1938. After Bensalem’s John Van Sant purchased the airfield in the late 1940s, he renamed it Old Star. At 80 acres, its three grass landing strips hosted aerial stunt shows. Lindsey Parsons, pilot of an aerobatic biplane, recalled dazzling fetes. “I could be airborne about half way up the hill, half roll the bird at the end of the runway and immediately push it up through an outside loop to complete the ‘initial climb out.’ This was spectacular performance back in the early ’60s!”
Van Sant sold the airport in 1971 to make room for the Oxford Valley Mall.
Skyhaven Air Center, Pennsylvania Ave., Morrisville, 1945-1950.
William Siesel owned the airport. As his daughter Siane recalled, “A man had flown into the airport in his SeaBee and my dad brought him home for dinner. Next thing I knew my mom and I were off to LA in a Republic SeaBee in the fall of 1946. Quite a trip.” A railroad line to the new Fairless Works steel mill put an end to operations in the early 1950s.
Morrisville Airport, West Trenton Ave., Falls. 1945-1970.
This airport offered crop dusting services to local farmers. It was owned by Frank Pingatore who sold it to brothers Norm and Bob Hortman in 1949. Norm, a TWA flight captain, and French wife Yvette added charters and aircraft maintenance. The airfield closed in 1970 to become a housing development.
Buehl Field, Street Road and Hulmeville Road, Bensalem, 1947-1966.
Ernest Buehl, a German air force pilot in World War I, founded the airfield and its Flying Dutchman Air Service. The airport had three turf runways and 5 aircraft hangers. It closed in 1966 to make way for the Brookwood Shopping Center.
3M Airport, Route 13 at Green Lane, Bristol Township, 1950-1980.
This airport dates back to Fleetwing which sold it to 3M Corp. Its three paved runways were busy throughout the 1950s due the construction of nearby Levittown. Hortman Aviation leased the property in 1970 after Morrisville Airport closed.
A memorable crash occurred in 1978 after a new student arrived with her grandfather for orientation. “She warned she had been a jinx all her life, and weird things might happen around there now that she had appeared,” recalled flight instructor Nathan Sturman.
Later that day a middle-aged student pilot began practice takeoffs. Circling back to land, Seymour Hundley was in trouble. “He was really low with alternating bursts of power when his undercarriage snagged the power lines. The plane tumbled over and plunged to earth with a loud ‘crump’ behind the trees,” Sturman explained. “Miraculously Seymour was fine, but the plane had been flattened and was blazing furiously. Nearly tragically, he jumped back onto the plane and disappeared into the blazing cabin for his student pilot kit. All’s well that ends well though.”
Due to insurance concerns, 3M airport closed in 1980 to become Edgely Industrial Park.
Buehl Field, Woodbourne Road, Middletown, 1967-1999.
After Ernest Buehl sold his airport in Bensalem, he relocated to a new airfield with a paved landing strip near Styer’s Orchard. Eventually the family called it quits and sold the field which is now Flowers Mill retirement community.
Van Sant Airport, Cafferty Road, Erwinna, 1972-present.
When John Van Sant closed Old Star, he transferred operations to Upper Bucks where rides on vintage aircraft and gliders continue to be offered. Public airports in Doylestown, Perkasie and Quakertown also buzz with private planes.
Sources include “A flying flivver in every garage” by Joseph Bourque published in Jan. 1996 by Historynet.com; “FAA registered airports” on the web at www.city-data.com/airports/Pennsylvania2.html, and “Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields:
Pennsylvania – Northeastern Philadelphia area” found on the web at http://www.airfields-freeman.com/PA/Airfields_PA_Philly_NE.htm. Information about Vansant Airport rides and rentals can be found at https://vansantairport.com/