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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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.

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