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Future of Airport Is Up in the Air

Santa Paula facility's reopening hinges on federal aid to rebuild its storm-damaged runway. Congressman promises to help.

February 24, 2005|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

The sun came out and the river receded Wednesday, leaving the owners of Santa Paula Airport to figure how to reopen a popular small-plane strip after a brown torrent carved a big chunk out of its runway.

"Our effort now is to save what we've got left, with the hopes of repairing the damage and reopening this airport someday," said airport director Bruce Dickenson, whose grandfather founded the small private strip in 1930.

The airport, a favorite of antique plane buffs, closed Tuesday after taking the brunt of a six-day storm, grounding 300 planes and idling most of its 25 businesses and 100 employees.

As bulldozers dumped a mixture of dirt and concrete to shore up the Santa Clara River banks on Wednesday, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) inspected the crumbling runway and promised to try to bring in federal construction crews to build a rock wall to prevent further erosion.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did just that for part of the airport after floods in 1969, airport officials said. So why can't it come back and finish the job?

"We've already placed the call to the corps," Gallegly said at a news conference.

He is also calling the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme to see if the Seabees can use the airport reconstruction for training. And he said he would ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to extend a January disaster declaration to cover the airport damage, because it began during storms last month.

The airport is private, so it does not readily qualify for government aid, Gallegly said. But because it is used by government agencies as a staging ground to respond to natural disasters, it is of public value.

"It is a private facility that provides tremendous public benefits," he said.

Airport officials, despondent a day earlier, said Wednesday they were encouraged.

"I'm seeing the possibility that we're going to get some help and put our airport back in service," said Rowena Mason, president of the Santa Paula Airport Assn. "Bringing the Seabees in is an exciting idea. And we've got to have some serious power here, because we're not going to be able to fix this ourselves."

The airport association is made up of 103 hangar owners, who say they chose the airport because it is unfenced and friendly -- like a small town that loves old planes.

"It's the only airport on the West Coast where the emphasis is on antique aircraft," said Gerald Moseley, 50, of Santa Barbara, a film composer for Hollywood movies who helped move planes away from the surging river Monday night.

Dave Watson, who owns three antique aircraft, drove three hours Wednesday morning from Acton to offer help to his airport friends.

"This is the neatest airport," he said. "Older planes are appreciated here. It's wide open to the public. It's a family; we have kids here."

The family pulled together Monday night, when Dickenson called on his old high school buddy, contractor Dean Lindsey, who saved the eastern portion of the airport by dumping boulders and concrete slabs into the river, then worked Tuesday and Wednesday to stop the erosion of the runway.

And it pulled together when former Santa Paula Mayor Jim McCoy provided barbecue beef and hot dogs to workers Tuesday night and chicken stew on Wednesday.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the city was going to find a way to help.

"The airport is one of the things that make Santa Paula unique," he said.

He noted that actor Steve McQueen used the airport as a hangout. Actor Kirk Douglas was landing at the airport when his helicopter crashed. And actor Cliff Robertson also once used it as a retreat.

But now the airport is unusable after the river took a 150-foot-deep slice out of its side, penetrating to the center of the only runway and damaging about one-third of the 2,650-foot strip.

Dickenson, a local farmer, said the last month has been difficult, since January storms caused $5 million in damage to the edge of the runway and airport directors unsuccessfully sought help from government agencies.

Things only got worse this week, as a surging river ripped apart the steel piles and metal mesh that Dickenson's grandfather, Ralph, had installed at the river's edge in the 1930s to hold it at bay.

"I'm thinking back," Dickenson said, "to how many times my grandfather saved this airport from this very same thing."

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