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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.

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“DOWN THERE ON THE RIGHT: THAT'S WHERE MY GRANDFATHER'S airstrip was,” says Bruce Dickenson, banking sharply. Under the right wing of White Bear, a 59-year-old Howard DGA 15 monoplane, we spot a small sandy rectangle cut out of the underbrush. No traces of a landing area remain.

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Directly beneath us the Santa Clara River meanders through its valley, and on both sides commercial groves and pastures blanket the sloping southern California landscape. Three miles straight ahead, the valley narrows where the river, a freeway, and the town of Santa Paula come together. Between the river and the highway is runway 22 of Santa Paula Airport, one of the most enduring and colorful of America’s old-time, small-town airfields. But Santa Paula Airport was actually born here, upriver—out of a catastrophe and one man’s desire to fly.

Dickenson’s grandfather, Ralph Dickenson, was a prosperous rancher with land along the river bank. Like most of the country, he was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight, so he joined like-minded local farmers to form an aeronautics club. Ralph traveled 50 miles to Los Angeles to take flying lessons from a former World War I ace named Hal Rouse. After eight hours of instruction, he bought an International biplane and brought it back to his ranch, where he had carved out an airstrip and built a hangar. Soon, several other farmers bought airplanes and used his airstrip.

On March 12, 1928, just before midnight, the St. Francis dam, 40 miles to the northeast, collapsed. A full reservoir released a huge wall of water. Mud and debris swept down the Santa Clara River valley, destroying everything in its path and killing at least 500 people. The flood swallowed up Ralph Dickenson’s airstrip, taking his hangar and the biplane with it. Afterward, he found the hangar half a mile downstream, the aircraft still inside, only lightly damaged.

The club members now regarded the building of a new airport with some urgency, and Ralph Dickenson agreed to raise money for it. With $1,000 each from 19 investors, he formed the Santa Paula Airport Association and purchased a tract of flood-damaged land just south of Harvard Boulevard in the town of Santa Paula. Volunteers did most of the preparation, working day and night. Farmers brought tractors to grade the land. Dirt for fill was donated by local packing houses. Two companies provided oil to surface the landing strip, which was 1,530 feet long at completion. Cash donations were used to pay kids to pull weeds, clear rocks, and stomp gopher holes—50 cents a day or a free airplane ride.

The dedication took place August 8 and 9, 1930. The airport’s eight hangars, including three that were salvaged from the flooded Dickenson ranch, were draped with patriotic bunting. Six thousand spectators turned out to watch glider flights, parachute jumps, and air races. The high school band played. Local aviator Edith Bond and movie stunt pilot Garland Lincoln thrilled the crowd with flying stunts.

Today you can get a glimpse of this opening day in the flickering, grainy images of old black-and-white movies when you visit one of the hangars of the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula. There’s dapper racing pilot Roscoe Turner and a closeup of his pet lion cub, Gilmore, caught blinking at the camera; a grinning Pancho Barnes in boots and jodhpurs, proprietress of the Mojave desert’s Happy Bottom Riding Club; and an early Goodyear blimp sailing overhead. All in all, a very big day for a small airport.

Bruce Dickenson’s late father, Don, purchased White Bear, the 1944 Howard, in 1954. “I sat in this seat when I was 16 years old,” Bruce tells me, adding, “and I threw up over there when I was four.” A disembodied voice on the radio announces its position in the traffic pattern on the downwind leg, parallel to the runway. We spot a Cessna below at 600 feet, scooting along against the backdrop of South Mountain, which looms to our left. “He’s a foreigner,” Bruce observes. “We don’t like to get that close to the airport, but they’re afraid of that mountain, I guess.”

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.

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