SANTA PAULA — When die-hard fans wanted to find actor Steve McQueen in the late 1970s, they would inevitably end up at Santa Paula Airport.
The late Hollywood heartthrob enjoyed flying and kept a plane in a hangar he owned there.
But hangar owners were as tightknit then as they are now and refused even a peep about which large metal shed belonged to McQueen.
This is just a small part of the storied history of the 70-year-old airport. To celebrate that history, the airport recently opened its own aviation museum, where visitors can hear stories about such celebrity fliers as McQueen, see vintage planes and a collection of memorabilia.
The Aviation Museum of Santa Paula officially opened its doors in February and has been drawing crowds of 300 to 400 the first Sunday of every month when its exhibits are on public display.
The museum is set up in a hangar and features pictures, film footage and mannequins outfitted in clothing dating back to August 1930, when the airport was dedicated. A 10-minute video on the opening ceremony shows scenes of Santa Paula in the 1930s and of a sail plane that was pushed from the top of South Mountain and landed on the runway.
About 6,000 people attended the dedication.
"It was a huge event when you consider that lots of people didn't even have cars and this was the height of the Depression," said Janice Dickenson, who is married to the grandson of the airport's founder, Ralph Dickenson.
Other museum exhibits include personal artifacts of aviators, such as antique radios, trophies and even the flying boots of the founder's wife. The exhibits trace the growth of the airport, which had only seven hangars when it opened. It now has 114 hangars that house a wide range of aircraft.
"We have antique, classic, experimental and modern airplanes, which is a mixture of grass-roots aviation that is very interesting to people," said Bob Phelps, whose hangar houses the main part of the museum. "Some people only see airplanes at Burbank or LAX and this is very different."
Moorpark resident and pilot David Park, 67, agreed. After flying from Camarillo to Santa Paula Airport on Wednesday afternoon, Park stopped in at the museum to view the video on the airport's 1930 opening. He was particularly taken with a scene showing Lt. Col. Roscoe Turner flying in a plane with his pet lion next to him.
Park said he was impressed with the Santa Paula museum and the airport's history.
"This airport is well-known in the aviation community worldwide as a great environment for general aviators," said Park, who was a pilot for United Airlines for 36 years. He keeps his 1968 orange and white Citabria in Camarillo, but is on a waiting list to buy a hangar at the Santa Paula Airport.
"There are a lot of classics here that are well-kept and I appreciate that," he said. "If I were to let go of the controls, my airplane would fly straight here for a cup of coffee. It's happiest here."