LANCASTER — Over the past several years, Nick Lopez has become the keeper of a slice of little-remembered history: The story of how this high desert town, one of Southern California's aviation pioneers, and the British Royal Air Force combined to help wage the Allied air campaign during World War II.
The collection of memorabilia is perhaps the least known of its kind in the region, literally having been locked away for years in a rather unlikely locale. But now, because of the county's budget crisis, this unusual collection is in danger of disappearing altogether.
Lopez, a 50-year-old amateur historian, is also a Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant at the county's Mira Loma Jail in Lancaster, where the collection has been housed. The jail's brief closure by the county last month due to a budget shortfall has put the future of both the facility and Lopez's collection in jeopardy.
The memorabilia tells how, long before the jail was built, Mira Loma got its start as a civilian-run flying school that produced about 7,000 military pilots during the war years, and was one of only a handful of civilian schools in the nation to help train British pilots early in the war.
The collection also helps shed light on the flight school's founder, Ret. Major C. C. Moseley, a World War I combat pilot who became one of Southern California's aviation pioneers from his base in Glendale, long managing that city's once preeminent commercial airport for the region.
In his four years at Mira Loma, Lopez built the collection into more than 150 items including artifacts, photos and booklets that recount the history of War Eagle Field, as the site was known during World War II, and of the Polaris Flight Academy, Moseley's operation there.
But Lopez was forced last month to empty the collection's glass display cases in Mira Loma's officers' dining room to prepare for the facility's supposed May 25 permanent closure. Sheriff Sherman Block said he didn't have enough money to keep the jail open.
Mira Loma did close that day, but unexpectedly reopened three days later after a showdown between Block and the county Board of Supervisors led to a temporary funding bailout. However, because Mira Loma's future remains in doubt, Lopez said his collection for now will remain boxed in his garage.
"This kind of became a hobby with me. The more I got into it, the more and more it got interesting," said Lopez, a 28-year department veteran who is the jail's scheduling and training sergeant. "People started telling me a little bit about this and that, and I got curious. That hooked me."
Before Mira Loma's respite, Lopez was ready to send letters to the former pilots and instructors at War Eagle Field who had contributed to the collection asking if they wanted their material back. Now, Lopez worries whether a still-possible closure will force him to send those letters.
During his years at Mira Loma, Lopez said he has never been contacted by any historian from outside the area about the collection. And it had few visitors, being locked behind the jail's barbed wire-topped fences. As the sergeant put it, "I don't think the big world knows about this at all."
The flight academy in Lancaster, located at what is now the southeast corner of Avenue I and 60th Street West, opened in August, 1941, to train Royal Air Force cadets from Great Britain, shifted to American pilots by early 1943 and remained in operation through August, 1945, records show.
Today, the Lancaster site houses the county's Mira Loma Jail and High Desert Hospital. Starting in the mid-1940s, the state used the site to hold youthful offenders, but the Sheriff's Department took it over in 1953, operating various jail facilities there ever since except for a closure from 1979 to 1980.
The Lancaster academy was one of four in Southern California operated by Moseley during the war. The others were Cal-Aero Academy in Ontario, Moseley's Glendale headquarters and the original Mira Loma Flight Academy in Oxnard, which relocated, bringing its name to Lancaster in mid-1944.
Upon his death in 1974 at age 79, newspaper accounts estimated that Moseley's academies had trained more than 25,000 pilots and 5,000 mechanics, most for the U. S. military during the war years at government expense. About 7,000 of those pilots came through Lancaster, including about 400 for the RAF.
A friend of then-Army Air Corps brass, Moseley was one of a handful of aviation businessmen who by 1939 was encouraged by the government to establish civilian pilot training schools. The British were among his earliest clients, desperate to gain more pilots and train them far from the raging Battle of Britain in 1940.
Moseley also was a founder of Western Air Express, which later became Western Airlines, and from 1934 through the 1950s ran the now-closed Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. It previously hosted the first Los Angeles-to-New York commercial flight, piloted by Charles Lindbergh.