The People and Planes of Santa Paula
There's a hard-to-define quality that can't be found on a flight chart or listed in an airport directory.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
(Page 2 of 6)
Below are the angled rows of hangars. The original eight have grown to 109, and at present Santa Paula is home to about 300 aircraft. Still, it is very much Ralph Dickenson’s airport, and almost everybody likes it that way. No corporate jets are going to intrude here because the runway will probably never be longer than the current 2,650 feet. There are no runway lights, no air traffic control tower, and no beacon. Aircraft tie-down fees are $25 a month, and hangars can be purchased only by licensed pilots with flyable aircraft. The only paid employees have been part-time bookkeepers; the airport managers, almost without exception, have been volunteers.
The best time to visit Santa Paula is on the first Sunday of the month. Visitors are welcome at any time, but on first Sundays owners open up hangar doors and wheel out their aircraft in order to take advantage of a California law exempting antique airplanes (those at least 35 years old) from a personal property tax if they are publicly displayed at least 12 days a year. Since 1988, “First Sunday at Santa Paula” has turned into a festive tradition, drawing aviation lovers—and their kids—to wander along the rows of hangars and watch pretty little airplanes take off and land.
Start a visit at the museum’s main hangar, filled with an eclectic display of photographs, posters, old newspaper headlines about the airport dedication, aircraft models, and a restored Stinson Reliant. Chances are you’ll run into museum president Bob Phelps. In 1937, he was working as a lineboy at an airport about 75 miles east of Santa Paula, washing and servicing aircraft in exchange for flying time. One day he flew to Santa Paula Airport with his boss, Jim Dewey. “I was amazed,” he recalls. “I had never been out of my local area, and here were all these mountains around and the river. And the airport was just a gravel strip at the time.”
In 1940, Phelps accompanied Dewey to nearby Oxnard Airport to start a civilian pilot training school, and later they moved their operations to Santa Paula. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Phelps returned from a flight to hear of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. To discourage further attacks by the Japanese, airports in the coastal defense zone not essential to training military pilots were closed. “Within three months, this airport was shut down,” recalls Phelps. “They closed all the hangars and padlocked them, then disabled all the airplanes in the hangars.” Santa Paula Airport would not reopen until 1945. Meanwhile, airport founder Ralph Dickenson became a civilian instructor at Oxnard, training military pilots.
Bob Phelps ferried some of the airplanes from his flight school inland to the desert town of Baker, California, then went to work as an inspector with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration). Soon he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, flew transports in the Far East, and after two years came back to a career in the CAA. He often returned to Santa Paula, and in 1981 he retired, moved there for good, and helped start the museum.
“People used to come to the airport and ask, ‘Where’s your museum?’ ” says Phelps. “Our answer was, ‘We don’t have a museum in itself, but the entire airport is a museum,’ which it was. We got tired of the question, though, so myself, Bruce Dickenson and his wife Janice, and an attorney decided we would make a museum.”
“People say this is a little airport,” says Doug Dullenkopf, owner of Screaming Eagle, an aircraft sales and maintenance shop, “but once you walk around and see what all is going on, you say, ‘God, there’s a lot of people here.’ ” The privately owned hangars where resident pilots keep their aircraft are uniformly plain on the outside but strikingly different on the inside. Some are a jumble of partly assembled airplanes, parts, battered signs, old cars, motorcycles, banners, bicycles, worn furniture, work benches, and tools. Others are showcase-neat, and in some cases display collections of art and painstakingly restored antique radios and appliances.
“Hangars here reflect individual personalities, and collectively that forms the spirit of this airport,” says Mike Dewey, Jim Dewey’s son. Until recently, Mike sold airplanes and offered flight instruction at the airport, just as his father did after World War II until he died in 1989. Dewey’s own gleaming hangar includes, among other items, an open-wheel racing car, Coca-Cola signs, vintage home appliances and photographs, a Foss Goodyear Midget racer, and a sport airplane designed and built by his father.