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 4 of 6)
One of the fabric people is Rowena Mason of Rowena’s Flying Fabric Company, motto: “We’ll keep your ribs in stitches.” In 1985 she bought a Piper Cub and hopped around the small airports of southern California, working at office jobs. “I didn’t like it,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to hang out at the airport all day.”
In 1990 she moved to Santa Paula, commuting 40 miles in her Cub to Van Nuys Airport, where she worked in a fabric shop. In the beginning she worked for free, just to learn the trade, and then for $5 an hour. At the same time, she worked nights as a waitress. In 1990, she met her future husband, Pete Mason, a corporate pilot who already had a hangar at Santa Paula. Now they run the fabric shop together and sometimes tow banners with their Stearman.
Al Ball came to Santa Paula and began flying at age 13. In 1974 he started an engine repair business. As a favor to a friend, he rebuilt a Kinner, a five-cylinder radial engine that powered the Ryan PT-22 trainer during World War II. He had tapped an undiscovered market, and today he is known as the world’s leading expert on rebuilding Kinner engines. “I have a five-year backup for Kinner repairs,” he says. “Customers come from all over the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Now I have one in Mexico.”
Dan Gray, a United Airlines Boeing 777 captain, owns two spotless modern hangars off the west end of the airport. “I started when I was 14, soloed on my 16th birthday, on my 17th got my private license, 18th got my commercial and CFI [certified flight instructor] and started teaching,” he says. At 23, Gray went to work for United. “I couldn’t wait to get out of Santa Paula, because I was tired of a little town,” he confides. “About 15 years later, I couldn’t wait to come back.”
When he returned, he started Aviation F/X, which for several years built radio-controlled flying models for television commercials and such movies as Flight of the Intruder and Black Angel. “Most of the ones I made got blown up,” he says. Gray has now switched to building full-scale aircraft kits. “I’ve built seven full-sized airplanes,” he says. “It’s good for me to get out here and work on airplanes all day.” He appreciates the diversity at Santa Paula: “If you want an expert in any field, you can find one here. The best welder in the world [Mike Jewett] is at Santa Paula and so is one of the best paint shops [Santa Paula Aircraft Painting] in the country.”
Dan Torrey, proprietor of MARS Aviation, is probably the nation’s leading specialist in Bellanca airplanes. MARS stands for Mobile Aircraft Repair Service: If you can’t bring in your aircraft, Torrey will come to you. “I have owners all over the West,” he says, “and some customers come over from Phoenix, Arizona, just for an oil change. I’m so busy now, the minute I push an airplane out of the hangar, I’m waiting for another one to come in. I have airplanes stashed in hangars all over the airport in different stages of restoration.”
Though Santa Paula’s hangars are filled with antique airplanes, their numbers were once even higher. Some that were restored and flown here have drifted off to museums around the country. At the same time, much of the energy and creativity at Santa Paula have been channeled into more modern aircraft. Lancair, the popular kit maker, started at Santa Paula but outgrew the airport several years ago and moved operations to Oregon. In one of Dan Gray’s hangars sits a bright red Legend, a kitplane he built and kept for himself. Capable of 300 mph, it is arguably the hottest airplane at the airport.
Vicki Cruse, a member of the U.S. unlimited aerobatic team, keeps her Edge 540 here. Santa Paula has long been a center for aerobatic training, due in large part to Mike Dewey and to Rich Stowell, who runs the Aviation Learning Center, where he teaches spin recovery and aerobatics. His course is known worldwide and each year draws a contingent of Japanese pilots. Dewey’s and Stowell’s businesses are helped by the presence of a designated aerobatic airspace three miles east of the runway.