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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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.”

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