GA, Ghosts, and Great Steaks

August 1, 2003

Philadelphia fun during AOPA Expo

While this year's AOPA Expo brings general aviation and pilots like you to Philadelphia, no one visits the City of Brotherly Love without soaking up at least some of the area's historic atmosphere. And for the aviation fanatic for whom the exhibits and activities at Expo aren't enough, Philadelphia and its surrounding communities offer attractions that showcase aviation, as well as must-see sights that honor its role in more than three centuries of U.S. history.

The Aviation Hall of the Franklin Institute of Science in Philadelphia proper is undergoing a major renovation, but luckily for Expo visitors, its grand reopening is scheduled for October 18, two weeks before Expo, which runs from October 30 through November 1. Reinvented as The Franklin Air Show, the exhibit hall will envelop visitors within a simulated airshow. The Franklin Institute is located at 222 North 20th Street, on Logan Square. Regular admission is $12.75 for adults and $10 for children ages 4 to 11 or seniors over 62; IMAX tickets are extra. Also at the institute, a new IMAX film on the adventures of Lewis and Clark is scheduled to premiere in August; shows typically run for two to four months.

If you'd like an aerial tour of Philly and the controllers won't grant you permission for your own detour over town, try a helicopter flight. Sterling Helicopter offers rides from Penn's Landing Heliport at Pier 36 and Columbus downtown. Call 215/271-2510 for scheduling and information.

After a chopper flight, you'll be up for a trip through the American Helicopter Museum, at 1220 American Boulevard, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. On the third Saturday of every month (through September), the museum offers family helicopter rides for $35 a person. Contact the museum at 610/436-9600 for admission prices and hours.

Once your aviation appetite is sated — if that's possible — you can't miss perhaps the most famous spot in Philly. Independence Historical National Park is the site of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and a nightly show, "Lights of Liberty," from April through October. For show times and tickets, visit the Web site ( The Civil War Library and Museum (at 1805 Pine Street) highlights Philly's role in the Civil War, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (1300 Locust Street) keeps documents created by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, which sowed seeds for the civil rights movement.

Of course, many of Philadelphia's most famous citizens are six feet under — and what better time of year to visit their current haunts than the last days of October? Perhaps the largest "celebrity" graveyard is Christ Church Burial Ground: Located at 5th and Arch streets, Christ Church is still an active burial site, once located on the "outskirts" of Philadelphia when the church purchased the land in 1719. Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried here, along with Commodore William Bainbridge, captain of the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides"), and Dr. Thomas Bond, physician and founder of the nation's first hospital. The burial ground reopened in May after restoration and being closed for 25 years.

For more haunting tales of the city, check out Ghost Tour of Philadelphia, which hosts a tour every night in October, and on November 1 and 7; see the Web site ( for dates and reservations, which are required. Tours visit St. Peter's Cemetery and Bishop White House, as well as one of Benjamin Franklin's old haunts, Library Hall. Who knows? Maybe he still drifts by for a visit....

Searching for spooks can work up an appetite. By all means, don't leave Philly without experiencing the city's most famous food: the cheese steak. While in the neighborhood of Independence Hall, check out the steaks at Willy & Duffy's Philly Grill at 600 Chestnut Street. However, if you want to go to the birthplace of the cheese steak, make the pilgrimage to "cheese steak corner," at 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, and visit either Geno's or Pat's. Another alternative is Jim's Steaks at 400 South Street. And don't worry about the calories: Walking the exhibits at Expo will quickly burn those off.

But the Philadelphia area boasts a lot more to do once you venture beyond the city streets. If you have time, consider making a trip north, for a taste of what the Pennsylvania countryside has to offer. One close-in destination is Bucks County, north and west of Philadelphia. With five thriving GA airports, including major GA reliever Northeast Philadelphia Airport, and only 30 minutes by car from downtown Philly, Bucks County makes for a convenient addition to your Expo trip.

No matter how you get to the Bucks County area, once there your list of possible activities is long and varied. If you choose one of the region's many bed-and-breakfasts, you could do no more than read a book in the quiet countryside and consider yourself lucky. But if you can tear yourself away from well-deserved inertia, you can sample the many museums, historical points of interest, and recreational activities — not to mention the antique shopping — that Bucks has to offer.

We had made arrangements to fly a VFR-only airplane into Quakertown airport, with a rental car happily arranged by the FBO, Corporate Flight Concepts (215/538-3055), through Enterprise or another local agency. However, with weather in the Northeast approaching that of Seattle this spring — does anyone remember last year's drought? — we threw in the towels (literally) and drove.

If your wings are similarly folded on your visit to Expo, and you drive from the Philadelphia area, one of the major routes into the county is State Route 611, which tracks past the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association at Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove. Select aircraft on outdoor display, including an FU7-3 Cutlass and an F9F-2 Panther, can be viewed through the fence, and there is a parking lot available right off the highway for this purpose — which also allows you to watch military aircraft operate from the base. Contact the base's public affairs office for group tour arrangements (215/443-6082).

You also can make a side trip to Wings Field, east of Norristown and north of Philadelphia, the birthplace of AOPA (see " Protecting Wings," May 2002 Pilot). And if you have young people in your party, you may do well to save a day for Sesame Place, an amusement park featuring the beloved Sesame Street characters, in Langhorne (215/752-7070).

The first major town you encounter outside the immediate Philly suburbs is Doylestown, which boasts a number of attractions, not the least of which is its bustling GA airport. With more than 170 aircraft based on the field, and the airport's central location in the county, Doylestown Airport gets fairly busy on VFR weekends, though the airport also has VOR, NDB, and GPS approaches.

Once you've tied down, you may note that Doylestown is something of a cultural hub for the county, which has a solid literary and artistic heritage. James A. Michener, of epic-novel fame, grew up in Doylestown, though as an orphan his beginnings are obscure. He spent a great deal of his life after writing fame contributing large portions of his earnings to scholarship programs, and notably founding the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. The sculpture garden and artifacts from Michener's life alone are worth stopping for, but the museum's primary focus is on art — including a variety of impressionist works and modern art by Pennsylvania artists. The museum is closed on Mondays, and admission is $6 for adults. Call 215/340-9800 for information.

Across the street from the Michener museum, and miles away in focus, is the Mercer Museum. Henry C. Mercer was also a Bucks County native, famous for founding the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works north of town, which produces unique tile and pottery from Mercer's designs based on old German stove plates. In addition to this legacy, Mercer created his namesake museum, which houses an incredible array of everyday items used in the household and in transportation and commerce throughout America's history. As you wander through the castlelike museum, formed entirely of concrete, you can reflect on the truism that one man's junk is another man's treasure. The museum features several activities for children. Admission is $6 for adults, $2.50 for children ages 6 to 17. For more information, call 215/345-0210 for museum hours and 215/345-6722 for the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works museum and gift shop.

Alternately, you may opt to fly into Quakertown (with its 3,200-foot runway) or Pennridge (with its 4,200-foot runway), both northwest of Doylestown, or Vansant's grass strip (see " Vansant: A Fun, Grass-Roots Airport," page 102). Or continue your drive up Route 313 for a couple of interesting sights in northern Bucks County: the home of Pearl S. Buck and the Peace Valley Nature Center and Park at Lake Galena.

The Pearl S. Buck House sits on Green Hills Farm outside of Dublin and is home to the international adoption agency Buck founded following the success of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, and her experiences living in China. Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, bestowed upon her in 1938. The house is open to tours and seminars take place in the farm's converted barn, also home to a gift shop. For information, call 215/249-0100; the house is closed to tours on Mondays.

To stretch your legs, head to the Peace Valley Nature Center and Park, three miles north of Doylestown. The center serves as a launch point for miles of hiking trails, and boat rentals are available during the summer season. Playgrounds and picnic areas allow families to relax outdoors. Call 215/757-0571 for details.

Another great recreational opportunity borders Bucks County to the east: the Delaware River. Several outfitters offer kayaking and rafting trips along its length, and the Delaware and Raritan Canal Park offers a 68-mile-long towpath on the New Jersey side that you can bicycle. We rented bikes at New Hope Cyclery, in New Hope, Pennsylvania (215/862-6888; $21 for a half-day rental), and walked the bikes across a pedestrian bridge to the towpath in Lambertville, New Jersey. A nice afternoon ride takes you south to Washington's Crossing State Park — the location of General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776. A park on the Pennsylvania side features the nineteenth-century village of Taylorsville. Call 215/493-4076 for information on historic reenactments nearby.

After your bike ride, return to New Hope to Gerenser's Exotic Ice Cream on Main Street for your reward. We personally sampled the butterscotch, strawberry cheesecake, and mochaccino flavors and found them most acceptable. Another stop along the river just a couple of miles to the north of New Hope — across the river from Stockton, New Jersey — is Dilly's Corner, which serves up Dilly dogs (piled high with peppers, onions, and fries) and other family-friendly fare at a joint that has become a local tradition.

New Hope is an epicenter for the tourist crowd; historic inns, bed-and-breakfasts, hotels, and restaurants abound here. There's also some very interesting shopping, from artisans' galleries to the eclectic Love Saves the Day on the corner of York Road and Main Street — an upscale secondhand and pop culture store perfect for completing the ultimate Halloween outfit (whether you plan to go as Dracula or Cher).

While New Hope can be jammed on busy summer weekends, we found the crowds more than manageable when we visited in May. In fact, a great opportunity awaits those attending Expo who would extend their stay in Pennsylvania after the show. The Logan Inn, in central New Hope, offers a Sunday special — with a 10-percent discount on lodging on Sunday nights and a $50 gift certificate to the inn's fine restaurant.

We stayed in the 16-room historic inn — the area's, and possibly the nation's, longest-operating inn, which opened its doors in 1727 — and enjoyed a cozy but cheerful mid-priced room. The room had its own bathroom, including a shower. Our voucher neatly covered two entrées at dinner, the house signature crab and shrimp over pasta, and a salmon special, which were both quite good (drinks, taxes, and tip were excluded). Call 215/862-2300 for details.

New Hope holds another attraction for those in the area during Expo — over Halloween this year, the ghostliest of times. Bert Johnson, former New Hope Borough councilman, quoted in the book Bucks County Ghost Stories, hazards that the town has more than its fair share of haunted houses and spirits that walk the streets. A woman in white strolls down Main Street. The S.J. Gerenser Theater building holds one spot where numerous electrical appliances have failed — reputed to be the scene of a hanging. And the Logan Inn may be one of the most persistently haunted buildings in town. Room six stays cold year-round, though it sits in the sunniest part of the inn. Ghost tours begin at the Logan; for more information, call 215/957-9988.

Missing all the excitement in the Philly area would undoubtedly be a hanging crime.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Links to additional information about Philadelphia and Bucks County tourism may be found on AOPA Online ( Also see AOPA's Airport Directory online ( for information on Northeast Philadelphia, Doylestown, Quakertown, Pennridge, and Vansant airports.

Float Across Time

Aerial pioneers in colonial times took to the air not as airplane drivers but as aeronauts. And this historic means of flight is readily available to visitors to the Philadelphia area. A relaxing way to cap off an exciting trip is a balloon ride that allows you to survey the region at a cloud's pace.

Several providers offer balloon adventures launching from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Hunterdon County, New Jersey. We flew with Balloons Aloft, based at Sky Manor Airport in Pittstown, New Jersey. Balloons Aloft, and its partner balloon operator, Alexandria Balloon Flights, is somewhat unique among balloon operations, as it has a dedicated facility at Sky Manor, complete with gift shop, restrooms, offices, and a social area for the requisite post-ballooning hors d'oeuvres and champagne.

Contrary to popular belief, evening can be every bit as good a time for ballooning as the dawn hours — so you don't necessarily need to get up with the birds to float alongside them.

Flights launch from a field just off the approach end of Runway 7 at Sky Manor. The balloon experience requires a crew (see " Riding the Wind," June Pilot), so we helped pilot Marty Pfenninger and ground crew chief (and Marty's wife) Johanna inflate the balloon. Alexandria launched its evening flight a little before we lifted off, and we drifted alongside its blue-and-green envelope for much of the hourlong ride.

Pfenninger owns and flies a V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza as well — and he has many friends in the local aviation community. A trio of them provided an impromptu show for us while they were out twisting through the spectacularly smooth and clear evening: a Stearman, an RV-8, and a PT-19 circled around us — maintaining a safe distance from the balloons, of course.

From our perch Pfenninger pointed out downtown Philadelphia, the bends of the Delaware River, and the Delaware Water Gap, a chink in the ridge where the Delaware cuts through the Appalachians on its journey to the ocean. We also waved to families who, upon hearing the rush of propane bursts into the balloon's envelope, came out onto their driveways and decks to watch us pass by.

When we set down (nearly eating a berry thicket in the process, but that's the joy of balloon landings) we had crossed about seven miles and flown as high as 1,500 feet and as low as 10 feet agl. But we'd traveled much farther than that in our minds. — JKB

Price: varies; $330 for two people ($165 per person), one-hour flight, including light hors d'oeuvres and champagne

Contact: 866/800-4386; Also try Alexandria Balloon Flights (888/468-2477), also at Sky Manor Airport, and Wings of Gold (800/758-7408), launching from Richboro and Lahaska, Pennsylvania, for rides over Bucks County.

Vansant: A Fun, Grass-Roots Airport

"What's with all the poor people around here?" glider pilot Eric Hatcher joked. "The newer airplanes don't have engines, and those that do were built before 1940 and have two wings!" Hatcher contributes to the festive atmosphere at Vansant Airport, northwest of Philadelphia, by giving glider rides to the public.

Vansant is grass-roots aviation — literally. It has only grass runways — one used exclusively for glider operations and the other populated mostly by biplanes. It is listed in AOPA's Airport Directory under Erwinna, Pennsylvania, but it is actually a country airport far from any town. There are six Boeing Stearmans based at the airport, ones you can check out in and even rent for solo flight. It may be the last place in the country where that can be done, said airport owner Azhar Husain. He learned to fly in his native country of Pakistan in a Tiger Moth. Husain left a lucrative banking job in New York seven years ago to operate Vansant because it was more fun. His company is called Sport Aviation.

On the day I was there Husain and other instructors gave rides to the public in Stearmans, provided nonstop aerobatic rides (instruction is also available) in a Great Lakes biplane for a bachelor party, gave glider instruction, and provided instruction in a Stearman. While that was in progress, a dozen gliders were towed to altitude and released.

Families came with their kids to hang on the airport fence — the sort of thing that supposedly isn't done anymore. A concession operator fired up the grill behind the small FBO — the one with flowers decorating its wooden deck porch — and sold hot dog and hamburger meals for less than $5 including dessert. (Meals are available on weekends only.) Groups of friends posed for photos in front of the Stearman I was to fly. Motorcycle riders also dropped by to watch and relax. In a maintenance hangar nearby a puppy named Libby, after the word liberty, gnawed on a case of Aeroshell oil.

Then it was my turn to receive instruction in a Stearman. The runway is 3,000 feet long and 120 feet wide — it's hard to run off the edge even in a tailwheel airplane. (Tailwheel aircraft tend to want to swap ends and go down the runway tail-first if not controlled closely.) Husain stood on the wing as I practiced start procedures while buckled in the rear cockpit, the one where the pilot sits. The front cockpit is for passengers, although it is equipped with a stick and rudder pedals.

Takeoff is accomplished by applying full power and putting the stick in the neutral position; the Stearman takes off from the three-point position, the one it is in while sitting on the ramp. Husain suggested also making three-point landings — that is, flaring a few feet above the runway, putting it in the same nose-high attitude as when the aircraft is at rest, and increasing back-pressure on the stick as the aircraft slows and settles. After two hours I felt I had it figured out. However, the insurance company has other ideas.

Requirements to solo the Stearman at Vansant are listed under two choices — both of them related to insurance: For a $1,000-deductible rental (the amount you pay should the aircraft be damaged), you need 1,000 hours of total flight time in any type of powered aircraft, 300 hours of tailwheel time, and 10 hours in a Stearman. I would not have qualified for that, since I have only 150 hours of tailwheel time. Choice two comes with a $5,000-deductible renter's insurance policy and requires only 300 total flight hours, 30 hours of tailwheel time, and 10 hours in a Stearman. Training costs less than $200 per hour.

After landing I watched a final flyby that is the grand finale of every aerobatic flight at Vansant. The Great Lakes zoomed at top speed for the length of the runway as the passenger in the front seat was yelping happily to his friends who were videotaping from below.

Vansant visitors get the impression they are on top of a mountain, thanks to the expansive view, but the elevation is only 390 feet. Roads to this airport north of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, pass through valleys in a parklike setting complete with one-lane bridges over babbling brooks. Since the roads are on the valley floor, the driveway to Vansant climbs steeply and gives the impression of climbing a mountain.

As I left the Stearman at the fuel pumps for the next flight Libby cried as if in agony. She had wanted to fly and was upset at being left out of the excitement generated by the Stearman's rumbling radial engine. At Vansant even the dogs want to learn to fly. Nonpilot visitors often have the same reaction — minus the plaintive whining — and return to take flying lessons. — Alton K. Marsh

For more information about Vansant Airport, visit the Web site (