By Ray Davids
To paraphrase a 1992 Robert Redford directed movie title, Santa Paula Airport folks can say “A River Ran Through It—Again.” They recently celebrated their 75th anniversary with an air fair despite their second flood this year.
The torrential rains of January and February 2005 in southern California, second heaviest in its history, swelled the Santa Clara River, formerly usually a dry river bed or trickle, into a rolling, roiling brown flood and wiped out use of one-third of Santa Paula’s runway. But the plucky folks at SZP are used to floods, because they originally founded the airport in 1930, two years after the tumultuous flood when the St. Francis Dam burst upstream in 1928.
CALTRANS, the authorizing agency for airport operations, closed the airport after February 22, when more than 155 feet of runway was undercut and broke up into the roaring Santa Clara River. Rowena Mason, president of the Santa Paula Airport Association, estimated that the damage would eventually cost many millions of dollars to repair.
“Santa Paula Fire Captain Steve Lazenby, on routine patrol the night of Feb. 22nd, was the first to see the damage to the runway,” Pat Quinn, secretary of the board of directors of the SPAA said. “He called Dean Lindsay, a local general contractor, and alerted him to the imminent danger. Lindsay assembled crews to dump rocks in to curb the erosion by the river. He in turn called Bruce Dickenson, grandson of the airport’s founder, Ralph Dickenson, and they all worked through the night.”
Quinn said that at about one thirty, the river started “eating the west end of the runway.”
“Bruce called for volunteers to move planes and cars from the airport,” he said. “At five o’clock, thinking they had curbed the erosion, they went home, but had to return an hour later and worked through all the next day to try to contain the continuing damage. When they were about to run out of rocks and other fill material, Lindsay called a supplier who told them of a location where there was more material; the guy told them to break the lock on the gate and take all they needed.”
Quinn said that the 1969 rains were actually worse, but since that time the Santa Paula Creek, which drains into the Santa Clara River, had been dredged out and contained with concrete upstream of the airport.
“When the January and February 2005 rains started, the Santa Paula Creek acted like a fire hose into the Santa Clara River,” he said. “It took out the footings of the 12th Street bridge and set the Santa Clara River to roaring, which, in turn, took out the jetty on the south side of the runway.”
In February, to stem the tide of erosion to the west end, the SPAA incurred $300,000 in expenses for emergency contractors.
“The Santa Paula City Council and Congressman Elton Gallegly, who came out to inspect the damage, got the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture to fund $4.8 million for embankment preservation of the river,” said Janice Dickenson, Santa Paula Airport historian. “The SPAA borrowed $685,000 from the Small Business Administration to repair the runway and maybe install rock facing on the river bank.”
She said that a permanent retaining wall on the south side of the runway is on hold.
“The Department of Fish & Game is concerned that it might hurt the steelhead trout,” she said. “That’s an ongoing discussion.”
Although SZP is a public airport, it’s privately owned by over 100 partners and is therefore not eligible for state or federal grants to make repairs. Nevertheless, the runway has now been restored to use, thanks to the efforts of many stalwart friends of SZP, and just in time for Santa Paula’s 75th anniversary celebration, held August 6 and 7.
The airport has received a temporary special-use permit following the construction of a permanent runway, 22/4, which is now open to the public for normal operations. It’s presently 60 feet wide, with paved overruns at each end, but with no taxiway, so aircraft must back-taxi on the runway after landing.
Further modifications will be made to operating lines and markings, and hopefully, additions for taxiways.
The Air Fair
Unlike February 22, the weather for the 75th anniversary celebration was almost perfect—a trifle on the warm side but a nice onshore breeze was blowing in from the Pacific Ocean 15 miles west.
There were 12 visiting aircraft tied down in front of Logsdon’s Restaurant mid-field; prominent among them was Clay Lacy’s DC-3 (United Mainliner N814CL), a Commemorative Air Force Mitsubishi Zero (NX712Z), a beautiful Blue Travel Air, and a ravishing red Beechcraft Staggerwing. Another beautiful Beech Staggerwing stood over near the air show announcer’s platform where Greg Andrews informed everyone attending about all the attractions and flybys.
Andrews, who works at Screaming Eagle Aviation weekdays, has flown about 60 different aircraft in his day, so is well equipped to describe all to the throng. There were an additional eight aircraft tied down adjacent to the runway on the north side and many more on the south side, east of the area that had been eroded. In addition to the aircraft, there were 23 vendor booths, including the Santa Paula Police Department, with its own crime scene unit, the Santa Paula Aviation Museum gift booth in the CP Aviation hangar, as well as an inflated bouncy Kids Jumping For Joy obstacle course and giant slide that was about as big as a jumbo jet.
The flybys were continuous throughout most of Saturday and Sunday. From 10 to 11 a.m. there were flybys by local and vintage aircraft like the Fieseler Storch and a Fleet biplane. This was followed by the opening ceremonies, which most importantly consisted of introducing and honoring a large group of old-timers who had been at the original dedication of the airport in 1930.
After that came the warbird flybys: a T-28, six Condor Squadron AT-6s and SNJs from Van Nuys, a trio of CAF Navy fighters based at Camarillo Airport, a B-25 that made four low passes over the crowd, and then three Skydivers, one of them carrying the American flag. Dan Gray’s candy-apple-red Gray Special Turbine Legend N724DG made several super-high-speed passes and wingovers as well as slow flight to thrill the crowd. The Santa Paula Fire Department demonstrated a helicopter rescue over the Santa Clara River.
There was much to see and do, but a highlight of Saturday evening, after the air show, was the dinner and dance festivities held on the taxiway and in the hangars of Screaming Eagle Aviation. Over 400 eventually sat down for dinner to McCoy’s barbecue; afterwards, the Swing Shift band played big band music for the dance crowd.
Sunday saw more flybys accompanied by broadcast tunes of the 1940s. Altogether, over 5,000 folks helped to celebrate Santa Paula Airport’s 75th birthday. The airport is alive and well and if you missed this air fair, you can see all these wonderful aircraft by visiting the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula any first Sunday of each month during their open house (visit the website [http://www.amszp.org].
If you’d like to help Santa Paula out with a donation or volunteer work, call Rowena Mason at 805-933-1155 or visit [http://www.santapaulaairport.org].