Pilots from outside the Northeast may wonder why AOPA is holding AOPA Expo 2003 in Philadelphia Oct 30-Nov 1. In fact, Philadelphia has a rich aviation history. AOPA was founded there in 1939, indicative of a robust early general aviation community in the area—the legacy of which is still around.
Of course, Expo will offer a wealth of things to do and see, including the best selection of informational and educational seminars, the giant exhibit hall with all of the latest aviation equipment, and, of course, great entertainment.
But there are also plenty of things to interest aviators in the area—reason enough to stay a while in Philadelphia.
Drew Steketee, former AOPA senior vice president of communications, was raised in the area, learned to fly there, and returns often to enjoy its aviation and tourism assets. Here are a few of his favorites to take in after you see Philadelphia and AOPA Expo 2003:
Van Sant Airport: Squint and you're back in the 1930s. Get some dual in a Stearman, Great Lakes, J-3, or Aeronca, or take a glider flight over beautiful Bucks County. (Reserve well in advance at 610/847-8320.) Peek into the hangars and workshops to see what's being rebuilt, or join the pilots around the picnic tables in the trees.
Want to fly in? It's a good 2,700-foot grass runway, but there's a small rise and rough surface in its mid-section and a large upslope on the eastern end. The western end is flat, so hope the wind allows for Runway 8 when you arrive. On 26, land slightly long, partly up the hill, but be careful: Stay to the RIGHT, away from trees south of the runway and to the LEFT of the parked gliders.
Note: CTAF (unicom) is NOT customarily used. Rely on your eyeballs, not on radio calls, and look for everything out there including gliders, slow taildraggers, and fast-moving towplanes returning to the field. Not comfortable? Everything up to a Cessna 310 uses Van Sant, but you might want to drive to it the first time.
More good flying nearby: Sky Manor Airport across the river in New Jersey. Great runway-side restaurant and a paved runway. Also, use Doylestown Airport and rent a car to drive to the Mercer Museum. It's full of Americana—truly one of a kind.
Bucks County, Pa.: Most tourists never get beyond touristy New Hope, some 30 miles (45 minutes) northeast of center city Philadelphia. But get off I-95 at PA Route 32 (just before I-95 crosses the Delaware River into New Jersey), head north on the River Road all the way toward New Hope and "Upper Bucks" and have a mini-vacation in this "world apart."
On your left most of the time, especially north of Centre Bridge: The Pennsylvania Canal. Get out and walk the towpath where mules towed canal boats until the 1920s. Also a great bike ride.
Washington Crossing: Where George crossed the Delaware to attack Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776. The museum, the famous painting, often there's a colonial reenactor encampment. The Washington Crossing Inn (restaurant) is across the street.
Bowman's Hill: Hang a left off PA 32 and go up this small mountain. Climb the stone tower erected during the Depression to recreate the observation post Washington used to search for British activity across the river in New Jersey. Great views! See also the Thompson-Neely "House of Decision" on PA 32, Washington's headquarters for a time, and many natural features of this state park.
New Hope: Go ahead; join the tourists in this former artist's colony now full of shops, galleries, restaurants, and bric-a-brac. An escape for Broadway stars and the New York intelligentsia decades ago, it's still picturesque and fun.
Lambertville, N.J.: Walk across the bridge and see more shops. Try the Lambertville Station restaurant or their nearby modern hotel (609/397-8300.) A couple of blocks into town, turn right for The Swan Hotel restaurant (609/397-1960.)
My favorite New Hope attraction: The New Hope and Ivyland steam railroad. You depart from New Hope station and cross the curved trestle, said to be the site of the famous scene in the early film melodrama The Perils of Pauline. The line goes 12 great miles through wonderful Bucks countryside. For $40, you get to ride in the locomotive cab one way, but this requires an advance reservation (215/862-2332).
More shopping: Go west a few miles from New Hope on Route 202 to Peddler's Village, a fun collection of shops and restaurants. Or continue north to Phillips Mill (215/862-2984): Catch the restaurant or see the art galleries nearby.
Centre Bridge: The Centre Bridge Inn has a nice cellar restaurant with huge hearth and outdoor patio facing the canal (215/862-2048.) Or just go across the street and join the locals at Dilly's stand for a hamburger or ice cream treat. Place your order and get a playing card; they call you by the card you're holding.
Best: Meil's, a different kind of restaurant in a former gas station across the bridge in Stockton, N.J. Great food and a nod to the area's counter-cultural heritage (609/397-8033). Faces the Stockton Inn, made famous in the song "There's a Small Hotel with a Little Wishing Well."
Lumberville, Pa.: Consider the Lumberville Store for a sandwich or gifts, but do duck into the Black Bass Hotel (215/297-5770) for a meal on the screened porch. It's like a small English wayside hotel, but I recommended it only for a meal, not lodgings. The bar (seldom used) is said to hail from Maxim's in 1880s Paris. The restaurant boasts what's billed as the largest collection of British coronation china and souvenirs in the United States. Be sure to walk the adjacent pedestrian bridge to the island park.
Point Pleasant: Check out Poor Richard's for architectural salvage and an incredible indoor collection of Americana—all for sale. It may be a little late in the season for Point Pleasant tubing on the Delaware, however.
At Point Pleasant, break left at the church and drive about five miles (making a left at the first T-intersection and later, go right at a second to drive through Frankenfield Covered Bridge) and on to Van Sant Airport.
(Alternate route: Continue north on PA 32 past the Issac Stover House to The Evermay country inn (610/294-9100), then hang a left and cross the Pennsylvania Canal into the small town of Erwinna. Turn left at the post office and follow that road some two miles around to the top of the hill. Turn left for the airport.
Fly into unique Flying W in Lumberton, N.J. Flying W Ranch has been a favorite since the 1960s, and it recently enjoyed a $1 million upgrade. Cowboy town Western ambiance with airplane-shaped swimming pool, runway-side restaurant and bar, and very reasonably priced runway-side hotel.
Flying in? Remember all traffic patterns are east of the field to avoid conflict with nearby South Jersey Regional (just 1.5 miles west). Also mind the PHL Class B boundary (to the west) and the McGuire AFB traffic pattern and alert area (to the east). Radar advisories are available in the area from McGuire Approach, but be cautious with those military controllers.
Atlantic City, N.J.: Bader Field is still open, within walking distance of the Atlantic City boardwalk and casinos. Close in, but in a questionable neighborhood. You may want to take a cab, especially to get to the best casinos. Bader now has minimal facilities, including fuel (9 a.m.-5 p.m.).
Ocean City, N.J.: The runway is close to this seaside tourist destination, but watch those crosswinds! Arrange ahead for ground transportation. The beach is a healthy hike away but easily doable. The airport even has showers.
Cape May, N.J.: This ninteenth-century tourist Mecca is again a favorite, but the airport is well inland and quite a few miles from the downtown district of Victorian homes and inns. A good driving destination, use Philadelphia's Walt Whitman Bridge off I-95, then the NJ 42 Freeway toward the Atlantic City Expressway, but break away at the NJ 55 Freeway that turns into NJ 47 for the rest of the 1.5-hour ride to Cape May.
Dining? Try The Lobster House just after the big bridge into town, or eat on the dock or sailing sloop (if open) docked outside the restaurant. Downtown? Dine at The Mad Batter, especially on its homey front porch.
Want to go farther? Take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across Delaware Bay (800/64-FERRY; get auto reservations for weekends) even if just for the 1:10 ride each way on a super-modern passenger and auto ferry. Go see quaint Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, or ever-jumpin' Ocean City, Maryland. You can also fly to the Ocean City airport, just five minutes by cab from that popular resort city.
Land at Wings Field in Ambler, Pa., and visit the Philadelphia Aviation Country Club where AOPA was founded in 1939. See the recently refurbished "Founders' Room" on the second floor, where AOPA came into existence through the work of Doc Hartranft and five Philadelphia aviation leaders. Call the manager ahead of time, but all AOPA members (residing at least 75 miles from the club) are usually welcome to enjoy the restaurant or grounds without a membership. Or fly in to Chester County-Carlson Airport, Coatesville, Pa., for a good airport restaurant right on the ramp.
Fly into Brandywine Airport for the American Helicopter Museum on the field. Philadelphia was key to autogiro and helicopter development, and this unique museum has a magnificent collection of rotorcraft.
Want to try something special? Land at Butter Valley, a paved runway in the middle of a golf course. It's in a valley east of Reading, Pa., and north of the Pottstown VOR. Just a few short steps to the clubhouse and restaurant; one of the more interesting landings you'll ever make.
Enjoy the airport restaurant at Lancaster, Pa., then head for Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the outlet malls, and the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum (717/687-8628), nearby Strasburg live steam railroad or, across the road from it, the caboose hotel. Yes, all the rooms are cabooses. Great for the kids.
Want to skip the towered Lancaster airport and find a country airport with character? Try Smoketown, Pa., about five miles southeast of LNS, an area favorite: modest restaurant and a good "country inn theme" motel within walking distance. Or rent a modest hotel room or nifty modern cottage right at the western end of the runway. You can probably park your plane out back.
Northwest of Wilmington, Delaware, drive to The Inn at Montchanin (302/888-2133) for a unique hostelry: an entire village recreated as it was near the famed Dupont powder and chemical works of the nineteenth century. You'll tell your friends about the luxurious bathrooms. Expensive, but try the superb Krazy Kats restaurant. Visit The Hagley Museum and Library (home of the AOPA archives) and the many art galleries, museums, and other cultural attractions of the Brandywine Valley.