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.”