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 3 of 6)
Dewey came to Santa Paula in 1953, when he was 13 years old. With the help of his father he built a glider from tubing salvaged from a derelict Cessna UC-78 and the wings of a J-2 Cub. He graduated from Santa Paula High School, got his private pilot’s license, and quickly earned his commercial pilot and instructor’s ratings. He followed up with an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic’s license from a two-year college, then bought a hangar at the airport with the help of Ralph Dickenson.
“I was scared to death of Ralph,” says Dewey. “He was a benevolent dictator—and a visionary. He acted real tough, but he had a heart of gold underneath. They were building these hangars out of junk wood and junk tin, and I bought one for about $1,600. It didn’t have any doors on it, and there was a big pile of dirt right in the middle. I said, ‘Ralph, what about that dirt?’ He said, ‘If you want the hangar, you take it with the dirt and you put the doors on.’ ”
With equipment borrowed from Dickenson, Dewey moved the dirt, built new doors, and at the age of 19 hung out a shingle for “Mike Dewey Aviation.” He started his flight instruction business with a single Piper Cub, later added a couple of helicopters along with other aircraft, and began teaching aerobatics. Eventually, he moved to bigger and better hangars, and the company evolved to include an aircraft dealership. Meanwhile, Dewey became a movie stunt pilot and then an aerial stunt coordinator, finally retiring a year and a half ago after 35 years. “I’ve been on this airport since I got to town,” he says, “and I pinch myself every morning that I’ve been able to be a part of this place. The whole thing about this airport is that everything was done for the love of aviation and not for profit. All these people have put so much time and effort into this airport, and they did it for nothing. Ralph Dickenson wanted to build an airport for the community where regular people could afford to own an airplane. And that spirit has never left. Never.”
Walt Marple, owner of Marple Aviation, presides over a crowded working hangar. Inside are a partly disassembled Boeing PT-17 Stearman and a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N trainer, both under restoration. “We do general maintenance, modifications, and overhaul,” he says, “everything from antiques to—you name it—sheet metal, fabric, wood, plastic.”
Thirty-five years ago, while working as an aerospace engineer in Los Angeles, Marple met Matt Jefferies, the original art director for the first “Star Trek” television series and a pilot who kept his airplane at Santa Paula. “Matt bought a black and white 1935 custom Waco YOC,” says Marple. “We wound up going down to bare bones and completely restoring it—11 years of weekends.” Twenty-five years ago, Marple moved to Santa Paula for good.
Over the years, visitors to Santa Paula had the opportunity to meet Jefferies, who died last year at the age of 82. Revered by Star Trek fans as the designer of the Starship Enterprise, he had maintained a hangar at Santa Paula even though failing eyesight prevented him from flying. Up until the end, he would receive visitors in the comfortable studio loft he had built in his hangar. Surrounded by mementos and paintings, including his own works and a scale model of Benny Howard’s famous 1930s racer, Mister Mulligan, Jefferies would reminisce about his flying days. “In 1967 I bought the Waco, which had been tied down in the weeds back of a hangar in Reno for months,” he told me shortly before his death. “Once I got it—every Saturday, Sunday, and holiday—I’d usually unlock this place about seven o’clock in the morning, then get home in the evening in time for dinner, and the next morning I was up here again. I lived 55 miles away near Universal Studios. We did a lot of traveling in the Waco when it was done, usually in conjunction with work. We used to put everything in it that I needed and be gone for two or three weeks on location.” In 1986 he retired as an art director for films and television, and in 1999 he donated his elegant old Waco to his home state, Virginia—it can now be seen at the Virginia State Aviation Museum in Richmond.
Other old birds are still here, though. Inside Joe Krybus’ hangar, a bright yellow Bücker Jungmann biplane awaits finishing touches. Next to it is the skeletal fuselage of another Bücker. Krybus is a restorer and a specialist in this graceful German sportplane. “I make complete restorations from the ground up,” he says. “I work it alone. I do everything—wood, metal, welding, engine mounts and installation, but not the engines themselves. I don’t have a Bücker of my own. I’m too busy working for other people.”
Two other old birds still here are de Havillands: a Gipsy and a Tiger Moth, both in Dave Watson’s hangar, both in fine flying condition. “I’ve been at Santa Paula for 10 years,” says Watson, a design engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works. “This is a surviving 1930s airport. The support for having old airplanes is here. If you take airplanes like these and go into a modern general aviation airport, they’re not always appreciated. They’re too slow in the pattern, some don’t have radios, and we like to burn 80-octane aviation gas, which is almost extinct. This airport has welders, it has fabric people, it has engine people, there are parts, there is knowledge and a willingness to share it with each other and with outsiders.”