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Grandson Hopes Aviation Museum Plans Will Fly

Historical items would be housed at Santa Paula Airport, built by Ralph Dickenson in 1930.

June 01, 2003|Suzie St. John | Special to The Times

Ralph Dickenson earned a space in the history books when his dream of building an airport in Santa Paula came to life in 1930. Now his grandson hopes to carve out his own piece of history by putting a permanent aviation museum on the grounds of the airport his grandfather founded.

Though the plans are still in the formative stage, Bruce Dickenson said he hopes to have the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula up and running in two years.

"I feel confident there won't be any major hurdles to overcome," said the 53-year-old Dickenson, a lifelong Santa Paula resident who is a rancher and pilot. "There are just certain time frames that can't be changed when it comes to permits and reports."

Plans call for a three-story building that will house antique and model airplanes and aviation memorabilia. Through educational programs, the museum will cover the history of airplanes and the pilots who flew them, as well as the history of the Santa Paula Airport, which runs parallel to California 126 between Palm Avenue and 10th Street.

The airport was built after the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928 by Ralph Dickenson and fellow rancher Dan Emmett, who had private airstrips on their ranches but understood the value of a public airport in Santa Paula.

The men raised $1,000 apiece from 19 local businessmen and ranchers and began constructing the airport with their own hands. Through the course of its 73-year history, the airport became recognized for its antique and experimental aircraft, as well as the occasional celebrity sighting. The late actor Steve McQueen owned a hangar there, and more recently, Jay Leno and Harrison Ford have been spotted.

The 15,000-square-foot proposed museum would be built on nearly seven acres that lie vacant at the east end of the airport. Though the cost hasn't been finalized, fund-raisers and private donations have brought in $600,000 so far.

The museum's operating costs would be funded through the second part of the proposal, the construction of 35 to 40 additional hangars. Currently, 106 hangars are on airport property.

Bruce Dickenson's wife, Janice, said the hangars would house both airplane and pilot, a growing aviation trend. The plane would be parked on the first floor, with a bedroom and kitchen on the second floor meant to provide short-term housing.

The plan is to sell the hangar but lease the property on which it sits. Museum costs would be covered by the fees.

"There is a huge interest in Santa Paula Airport with people who fly here but don't live here," Bruce Dickenson said. "This will provide a weekend getaway for them. Both the museum and the hangars will draw people to Santa Paula; it's full of potential."

The driving force behind the project is the nonprofit Aviation Museum of Santa Paula.

Janice Dickenson said the group's 250 members include local aviators, Santa Paula residents and people from other areas who use the airport's services.

Meanwhile, "First Sunday at the Airport" continues to give aviation aficionados a look at some of the items that might go into the new museum. Once a month since 1989, the public is invited to the "Chain of Hangars," eight individually owned hangars that have been turned into mini-museums.

In one, visitors can read about the formation of the airport and view memorabilia from that time period, including Ralph Dickenson's flight jacket and a short movie filmed at the airport's Aug. 9, 1930, dedication.

In another hangar are antique airplanes and race cars. Photographs lining the wall cover the career of movie stunt pilot Mike Dewey, who has lived in Santa Paula since 1953.

In yet another, visitors can see a work in progress, as Bruce Dickenson builds an airplane from scratch.

Dickenson said the need for a permanent museum has been obvious the last six years as the collection of historical items has grown along with First Sunday attendance, which runs about 600 each month.

Though many of the items will be moved to the new building, others will stay put so the First Sunday tradition can continue.

But the museum won't lack for exhibits. A number of antique planes from Santa Paula have been sold to museums around the country because the airport does not have enough space to house them, Bruce Dickenson said.

"We don't want to lose any more of our airplanes," he said. "Our intent is to do inter-museum trading and try to get some of them back here."

The aviation group presented its plans to the Santa Paul City Council last month. A decision is not expected until a new environmental report is completed, which could take several months.

But pointing out that First Sundays draw people from as far as 200 miles away, Councilwoman Mary Ann Krause said the idea clearly has merit.

"From an economic standpoint or a cultural standpoint, this could be a tremendous plus for the community," Krause said. "Not only will the museum be self-sustaining, but the large group of dedicated people makes it all the more plausible."


First Sunday will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, weather permitting. The Funbirds of Southern California, featuring Ford Thunderbirds, and the Valley Flat V-8 Ford Club, featuring cars made between 1932 and 1953, will participate this month. Call 525-1109 for details or access on the Internet.

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