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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.

“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.

From This Story

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Hang around the airport long enough and you’ll begin to hear about Santa Paula’s brushes with celebrity. On September 28, 1968, a 66-year-old Charles Lindbergh visited the airport at the invitation of an old friend, Bud Gurney, who had barnstormed with him in the 1920s and then taken over his mail route when he left to make his historic flight to Paris. Gurney, long since retired as a United Airlines captain, had hangared his Gypsy Moth at Santa Paula since 1963. Together, Gurney and Lindbergh went flying that day, and Bud’s son, John, followed in a second Gypsy Moth. John recounts that they had all flown up to a little country strip in the mountains, sat around on the grass and talked for a couple of hours, and then had flown back.

Actor Cliff Robertson once had a fleet of antique biplanes here, and even though he now lives in New York, he still maintains a hangar at Santa Paula and a Stampe biplane in flying condition. Actors Gene Hackman and Leonard Nimoy and famed Lockheed test pilot Tony LeVier all used to fly here often. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin visited several times, once thrilling the airport crowd when he arranged for a Boeing 747 carrying a space shuttle to fly by. And anyone can point out the hangar where the late film star Steve McQueen, who was taught to fly by Mike Dewey, kept his Stearman and his racing motorcycles. McQueen once described Santa Paula as “my kind of country club,” and he was no doubt attracted to the unpretentious atmosphere.

It had been Ralph Dickenson’s dream to build a plain and simple airfield, and the Santa Paula of today is a reflection of Dickenson’s long rule; he stayed on as president of the board of the Santa Paula Airport Association for 45 years and continued to manage the airport for another five. After he retired as association president, his son, Don, served for 16 years, and then in 1997, grandson Bruce took over for four years and still serves on the board.

Ralph Dickenson continued to fly until he was 89, and in the last few years he owned a Cessna 180, which he bought without a radio. (His hearing was going, and he never liked radios much anyhow.) He died in 1985, at the age of 91. Up to the end, though, he came to his airport and pulled weeds to keep the place tidy.


Sidebar: The Details

Almost equidistant between the airports of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Santa Paula is on Route 126, 12 miles inland from the coastal highway. Nearby airports at Camarillo, Van Nuys, and Oxnard all cater to light general aviation aircraft, small jets, and regional airliners.


Sidebar: Vital Stats

Opened: Dedicated on August 8 & 9, 1930.

Dining: Try Logsdon’s Restaurant, located at the airport. For information on food and lodging, check out www.santapaulaairport.com.

Don’t Miss: Watching old movies of Golden Age pilots in the airport’s museum at the open houses held on the first Sunday of each month. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.amszp.org or call (805) 525-1109.

Cost: Free admission.

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