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The near-loss of the Santa Paula Airport

Winter 2005.

This is an account of the catastrophic near-death experience of the Santa Paula Airport, and my involvement in the subsequent restoration and upgrade.                         Read the full story

Ventura County had the biggest rain year in decades. It wasn’t a perfect storm, but relentless hard rain -- one storm dropped 12 inches in 12 hours -- enough to take out a chunk of runway and wash 200,000 cubic yards of airport real estate down the river.
The Santa Clara river had swelled in previous years. This time it was a wilder event, and the California State Division of Aeronautics closed the airport, and revoked the license to operate that was granted in the 1930s.

This story is especially close to my heart: I live and have my design offices at this vital and very unique Southern California airport that was born in the Golden Age of aviation. I've been flying at this airport for 36 years now.

We welcomed the long wet winter of 2005. Mostly the rain came steadily, quenching the deep thirst of our desert-meets-the-sea chaparral landscape. Some winters only yield a few inches of rain in the entire year, and about every 7 years we get good and wet. But 2005 went far beyond the familiar seven year dump. In January it rained nearly the entire month, seemed like every day looking back on it, sometimes all day and all night. Our hills and valleys - often brown all year - promised to be vibrantly green and covered gloriously with poppies and lupine till July. The nearby Oxnard plain, so fertile and covered with early strawberries, would produce a bumper crop. The reservoirs would be full, the wilderness creatures would have a lot to eat, and I looked forward to many days to enjoy my big mud boots. Toward the end of the month, there was a swell in our Santa Clara River that rose just several inches shy of the top of the riverbank in Santa Paula. I had seen that before in 2000, when only three or four inches of freeboard were left till the river would overflow it’s banks but it did not, and without taking my hands out of my pockets I could dip the toe of my tennis shoe into the fast-moving current. In 2000 that water level represented about 135,000 cubic feet per second: slightly over 1 million gallons per second, tumbling boulders with a strong current moving at 12-15 knots. You could hear them, and feel them shake the ground.

2005 was different. The main current looked more aggressive. In previous wet years the main current flowed straight under the 12th Street Bridge from 30 miles upstream and past the airport uneventfully, for the 13 or-so-mile-trip to the Pacific. This year there was a wilder serpentine motion to the current; it bounced off the opposite shore just downstream of the bridge and headed towards the airport shoreline at midfield. One January morning following a particularly heavy rain we saw that a few long-standing willow trees were missing along the river’s-edge, just at this focal point. A deeply disturbing observation. A harbinger, but of what, exactly?

High water subsided after a day or two between storms and then the rains continued through February, hard and steady. They called it a storm series and, in this case, with a 50 or 100-year storm thrown in. On February 21st, after weeks of on-and-off rain, it stormed hard all day. Inside the hangars at night while we kept guard: for leaks, moving pots and pans around, but more serious was our concern for what was happening outside, in the river. The rain resounded heavily on the sheet metal roofs, drumming, coming in sheets, and we worried. Seeing the trees missing at the end of January inspired us to move the airplanes that had tie-down spots along that river bank. This was different: trees were missing, the current was aggressive and I wondered why, but my attention was soon riveted on more pressing questions.

A heartbreaking loss.
Early morning February 22, I ventured outside to see some 800 feet of old 30 foot trees gone along the river’s edge, standing waves in the swift 15-knot current and an enormous piece of the runway missing. A breach in the shoreline came right to the centerline of the already short 1/2 mile runway; 200,000 cubic yards of real estate had washed away. We were stunned, 50-year residents among us, blank-faced and dazed, no idea what to do.

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