There is something magical about flying. Maybe it's the stories we were raised on --- Aladdin's Magic Carpet, Peter Pan, Superman --- but the first time you actually "break the bonds of earth" you know you'll never forget the feeling. For Paso Roblans the first experience of flight may have come in the 1920's when barnstorming pilots landed in the field near the old Reif Store at the intersection of Union and Golden Hill roads or at the north end of Riverside offering a flight for $2. An adventurous young Edith Leisy was eager to go for a ride with one of these itinerant flyers. Her beau, later her husband, Roy Bethel, was not so sure he liked that idea. Edith, however, passed a hat to collect the price of the ride and took off on her first flying adventure.
The first real airport in Paso Robles consisted of a dirt strip in a hayfield owned by T.A. Osborne a mile and a half east of the downtown area. Through the late 1920's and 1930's, flyers would circle the city before landing to alert families and potential passengers of their arrival. Former Roblan, Darwin Fox, remembered driving to the field in his Model T touring car to ferry pilots back to town. By 1940 the City of Paso Robles had acquired the airfield from Mr. Osborne and had qualified for funds from the Civil Aeronautics Administration to improve the field. A small sheet metal hangar, light beam, radio signal tower and weather station were installed. The field was weeded, graded and oiled as well.
Also in 1940 Bruce Denham, a flight instructor from southern California, arrived in Paso Robles with a 1933 Great Lakes open cockpit biplane and a high-wing, enclosed-cabin Luscombe. Among Denham's first students were Dr. Fred Ragsdale, Betty Lyle and Lester Dauth, who had taken his first flight about ten years earlier with local pilot, Augie Sauret, who was flying out of Oakland at the time.
Ground instruction in Paso Robles was given by H.R. Martinson who was a professor of aeronautics at Cal Poly. Other instructors were Carl Von Sosten and Johnny Hibbard. The cost of flight instruction was about $100 for ten hours.
Planes like the Great Lakes and the Luscombe were relatively unsophisticated by today's standards. They had skids instead of tail wheels, no brakes; and instruments commonly consisted of an oil pressure gauge, an altimeter and a compass. In the open cockpit craft, the instructor and student had to communicate by speaking through a rubber tube. These planes had the advantage of being able to land almost anywhere. Lester Dauth remembers a time he was out for a ride in the Luscombe when he spotted his cousin Squid Rougeot, driving a tractor on the Nacimiento Ranch. Lester landed in the field, visited with Squid and then took off to resume his flight.Late in 1940 the War Department completed arrangements to lease the airfield from the city, and as they began extensive improvements, private aviation in Paso Robles came to a virtual standstill. Local flight students, including Dr. Lenord Poe, had to go over the Cuesta Grade to San Luis Obispo for instruction with the Civilian Pilot Training program.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, local pilots moved their planes to other areas for storage, with many civilian aircraft forced to spend the next years grounded on the ramp at Lone Pine. Dr. Ragsdale's Culver Cadet was dismantled and the wings were stored in his garage while the fuselage was kept in Paul Turner's garage on Park Street. Meanwhile, 1940 to 1941 saw extensive upgrading and modernization of the airfield in Paso Robles. A new large hangar, mess halls and other buildings were completed as well as construction of new runways, built to accommodate any aircraft then in use.
It seemed that not everyone looked favorably on these improvements. One woman, who lived on the edge of the airport property shouldered her shotgun and sat under the trees designated to be removed. Apparently this early environmental activist wasn't able to face down the War Department, as development continued. It was at this point that the little dirt strip had metamorphosed into Sherwood Field. The field was named for Captain George Sherwood, the first commander of the 115th Observation Squadron of the California National Guard. Sherwood was killed in 1935 while flying civilian mail near Burbank, ironically crash-landing in a cemetery. His observation squadron was the first military group to occupy Sherwood Field. According to Dan Krieger, writing in War Comes to the Middle Kingdom, the 115th was comprised of many photographers from southern California, some associated with the movie industry in civilian life. Sometimes Hollywood starlets would be brought to Paso Robles to entertain the troops.
Movieland expertise was evident in the 115th's winning entry in the 1941 Pioneer Day parade, a train complete with masked robbers who staged attacks on the locomotive along the parade route. One member of the 115th organized a baseball team to play against a local girls' team. He requested ten baseball bats from Warner Brothers Studio. When the studio mistakenly sent one hundred bats, the surplus was used as fuel for a post-game barbecue.
But it was not all fun and games for the one hundred-plus enlisted men and twenty-some officer-pilots. They continued training in observation and air reconnaissance as well as participating in flour-bombing and target-towing exercises with the recently completed Camp Roberts. Late in 1941 Sherwood Field was turned over to the Navy, which operated it as an emergency field. During this time the field was used at least once by a Hollywood movie company. Local residents recall watching stunt pilot Paul Mantz fly a Stearman biplane through the open doors of the big hangar and out the other side in a sequence for a Robert Taylor movie.With the end of the war in August 1945, the Navy turned the airport back to the city of Paso Robles. Paul Turner, Basil Tunison, Lew Slate, John Gallagher and Lenord Poe took over operation of Sherwood Field as a civilian airport. Pilots whose flying time had been interrupted by the war resumed instruction and flight time with instructors Larry Anderson, Tony Machado and Walt Fell. Many returning soldiers took advantage of G.I. Bill funds to begin flying lessons. Sherwood was once again a haven for local flyers.
The 20/30 Club (forerunner of the Jaycees) painted "Paso Robles" on the roof of a local warehouse, with a large arrow pointing the way to the airport. The 20/30's and later the Shrine Club took over the old Sherwood officers' mess hall as a meeting place. A commercial airline, Southwest Air, made regular stops in Paso Robles for a time. And the big hangar, now Ennis Business Forms, was home to William Randolph Hearst's DC-3 when he came to San Simeon. Meanwhile, in 1942 the Marine Corps had acquired 1,200 acres in the Estrella area and constructed an airfield. From 1942 to 1947 up to 1,500 troops were quartered at the Estrella Marine Corps Base for training. An early jet, a Bell P-59, made a landing there, impressing those who saw this early example of a plane without propellers.
In 1947, the War Department transferred ownership of the field to the County of San Luis Obispo. With post-war building encroaching on Sherwood Field, Paso Robles' general aviation moved to Estrella in the early 1950's. Among the early operators at Estrella were Archie Dean and Bob Smoot. Initially their primary business was air patrol of oil pipelines from the San Joaquin Valley to the coast. Later, with the help of Bruce Trager, the operation expanded to include more flight instruction, charters and aircraft rental. In more recent years, current airport manager Roger Oxborrow joined the operation as a pipeline pilot and flight instructor. Some years after the City of Paso Robles acquired the airport in 1973, it was designated Archie Dean Field.
Although tail skids, leather helmets and open cockpits may be few and far between these days, the airport in Paso Robles continues to lure those who are attracted to the romance and adventure of life on the wing.
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