California’s Santa Paula Airport closed by flood

Torrential rains in Southern California have closed another airport. Officials at Santa Paula Airport (SZP) in Ventura County made the decision to shut down the privately owned field Feb. 22 after the rising Santa Clara River undermined a tie-down area, a helicopter landing pad and swept away 155 feet of the 2,650-foot runway.

SZP was closed so that emergency crews, made up mostly of private contractors, could drive back and forth on the runway to dump truckloads of rocks and cement into the river in an effort to build a jetty to protect what is left of the airport. “We had protection from the river until the January storms, when the river changed course and washed it away,” said Pat Quinn, an airport spokesman. “We were naked for this recent batch of storms, which undermined the river bank and ate into the airport.”

One of the first casualties of the rising water was land slated for development of condo hangar homes.

“We had a fellow who was looking at creating 45 homes there,” he said. “Now it’s more like 30 sites are left.”

The airport is home to 300 aircraft, several of them vintage models. As this issue was going to press, the rising water had not damaged any aircraft or hangars. However, the owner of the flight school at the airport relocated the fleet to a nearby field so that the school could stay in operation.

The airport, said Quinn, is the second largest employer in the community. There are 26 businesses on the field, including six repair shops. Approximately 100 people have jobs at the airport. Those jobs, like the airport itself, are in danger, says Quinn.

“Of the 26 businesses based at the field, I would say more than half of them are really hurting because the airport is closed,” he said. “Those businesses don’t have any customers flying in or out and they may have to shut down altogether or leave.”

Since the airport is privately owned and self-supporting, it is not eligible for state or federal disaster assistance, according to Quinn.

“We’re on our own,” he said. “We are a corporation with 109 stockholders and we’re estimating we’re looking at $2 million in damage right now. That’s a lot of money for us.”

The airport’s reserve money was spent on the emergency protection work, so owners don’t have the cash to rebuild, he added.

On Feb. 25 airport officials learned that the National Resources Conservation Service, which is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, plans to allocate $6 million for the restoration of the banks along the Santa Clara River.

“It’s not going to rebuild the airport,” Quinn stressed. “We still have a big hole in the airport property and the runway is all torn to heck. We figure we’re in debt about $250,000 for the emergency work.” Airport officials are looking for any federal or state programs that will help pay for repairs to the airport. They’re also open to taking donations from the flying community and are appealing to aviation advocacy groups for help in rebuilding the airport.

Born of a flood

Ironically, the airport was created 75 years ago after a flood that was triggered by the failure of the St. Francis Dam. The flood flattened land downstream. After the water passed, a local farmer, who was also a pilot, persuaded other pilot farmers in the area to contribute money and time for construction of an airport on the newly cleared flat spot next to the river.

Despite this setback, there are still plans to celebrate the airport’s 75 years in operation this summer. It has seen its fair share of history. During the Golden Age of aviation it was frequented by the likes of Pancho Barnes, Charles Lindbergh and Roscoe Turner. The airport is also home to the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula. The museum, which is housed in several hangars, holds an open house the first Sunday of each month.

“There was no damage to hangars,” said Judy McCarthy, the museum’s event coordinator.

Despite the damage to the airport, McCarthy said that the museum still planned to hold its open house March 6. Along with the open house, many owners of vintage aircraft push their airplanes out of the hangars for visitors to enjoy.

“We want to let people know that even though our runway is damaged and closed temporarily, Santa Paula Airport is still very much alive,” she said.

The airport will remain closed until after state transportation officials inspect the remaining length of runway. In addition to taking off the end of the runway, flood waters undermined much of the its riverside edge.

For more information: 805-933-1155.

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