Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Santa Paula Airport (KSZP) has been flying high for 90 years

Two 1940s vintage Piper J-3 Cubs in flight over Santa Paula and the Santa Clara River Valley. The planes were flying out of Santa Paula Airport, the biggest private airport in the tri-county region. 
(Photo courtesy of Evan Byrne)

Ninety years and three months ago, the Santa Paula Chronicle newspaper celebrated the opening of an airport, just a few years after a 25-year old American, Charles Lindbergh, crossed the Atlantic.

In 1930, air travel was just beginning—only 6,000 Americans had flown on a commercial jet—but rancher Ralph Dickenson wanted the Santa Paula community involved in the new private airport. Speaking to a crowd at the Lion’s Club, he encouraged members to take part in aviation.

“Patronize the field, take air rides, take instructions, and we will put the project over,” he said.

Nearly a century later, Santa Paula Airport (KSZP) has made good on many of Dickenson’s wishes. The airport began with 19 investors, $19,000 and 4 parcels of land along the Santa Clara River. It was born in hard times—months after the the stock market crash of 1929 and the St. Francis Dam collapse, which killed hundreds of residents of the river valley—but it has persevered, even in the time of COVID-19.

Santa Paula Airport is one of 14,556 private airports in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which regulates airports through the Federal Aviation Administration. The number of private airports is up 40% since 1980, while the number of public and private airports that are open to the public has hovered around 5,000.

World War I and II veterans no longer walk the grounds at Santa Paula Airport and “beach taxis” don’t take off for a day of sunbathing at Rincon, but the airport has sustained its business model, remaining privately owned by an association of shareholders, while open to the general public.

Over the years, the grounds and amenities have grown, offering 24-hour self-fueling, a flight school, a bar and restaurant, a helipad and multiple hangars. Some pilots even live in the hangars with their planes parked downstairs and their apartments above.

At 4 p.m., the sun starts its descent on the Hangar Bar & Grille, overlooking the 2,600-foot tarmac. The hangar doors are raised as mechanics scoot under the wings of a single-engine Bellanca Citabria, carting dollies and tools. Instructors and students pace to and from the entrance of the CP Aviation flight school.

This time of year, strangers’ voices can be heard on the radio waves when the National Park Service and Alaska State Troopers enroll in the Emergency Maneuver Training, one of CP Aviation’s well known programs, started in 1987 by Rich Stole. The course teaches pilots what to do in distress, especially if engine failure occurs.

That once happened to CP Aviation owner and master instructor Judy Phelps. Thanks to EMT training, when the engine failed she glided into a river bed unharmed.

Phelps met her husband, Clay Phelps, while waitressing at the restaurant and attending flight school. They now run CP Aviation together. They started with six planes, and over the course of their 26-year marriage, the operation grew to 21 planes and 12 instructors.

“My husband is one hell of a mechanic, so the airplanes are in tip-top shape,” said Judy Phelps, who flies in the Wings Over Camarillo Airshow. “He keeps everything running and we’re known for having nice, clean airplanes.”

Judy Phelps is also highly regarded for her teaching, something she found by accident.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a teacher and never went to college,” she said. “Teaching people to learn how to fly is so rewarding. I just had a young 16-year old kid solo an airplane before he got his driver

Planes can take off and land as often as every two minutes. At Santa Paula Airport, everyone relies on radio and sight to determine when it’s safe to go. There is no air traffic control tower doling out commands.

Flights happen between sunrise and sunset. With no lights, the runway is dark not long after sundown. Few flight schools offer this kind of experience for people working towards the 40 hours of a private pilot license. And while the airline industry’s struggles sometimes discourage young pilots from pursuing their dreams of flying commercially, that means Phelps gets to hold on to instructors for longer before they enter the recruitment pipeline.

Phelps says the school is at the perfect size and business is where they want it to be, in spite of a six-week shutdown during
the pandemic.

“We’re at the point where we don’t want to grow anymore, just manage what we have and do what we do,” she said.

Commercial pilot and hangar owner David Byrne knows the fluctuations of his industry better than anyone. Byrne began flying at Santa Paula in the 1980s, taking aeronautics classes at CP Aviation. During the week, Byrne flies Boeing 737s in and out of Los Angeles International Airport, where he’s been a United Airlines commercial pilot for over three decades.

After September 11th, 2001, when flights were grounded and crews furloughed, he decided to start an aerial photography business, Focal Flight, to serve a customer base of surveyors, construction and title companies in the Tri-Counties and beyond.

“Someone who ran a GIS company came to me with a color infrared camera
and asked, ‘Can I get this in the air?’” he said.

Fifteen years later, he and son, Evan Byrne, who passed his pilot’s license checkride at CP Aviation, earn around $250,000 a year in revenue and work with 10 regular clients.

Operating out of Santa Paula Airport offers different business conditions for a pilot used to spending hours waiting on the runway.

“As weird as it sounds, no control tower makes it so much easier than at a larger airport where the control tower makes everything take longer,” David Byrne said.

Two weeks ago, father and son returned from Lubbock, Texas, where they shot 132,000 acres in six hours. Normally, they take photos anywhere from 1,000 to 18,000 feet.

Santa Paula Airport, said Evan Byrne, is “a unique airport with an extremely high percentage of antique and experimental airplanes. Being an uncontrolled airport, you can come and go as you please. All of us take safety and awareness very seriously.”

Over the years, the easements along the airport have multiplied, making room for a museum, mechanic shops, lofts, and the next generation of aviators, proving that Ralph Dickenson’s dream remains alive and well.

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