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"Temecula: Rancho California Airport a distant memory"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

TEMECULA: Rancho California Airport a distant memory 
The Riverside (CA) Press-Enterprise

Passersby would never guess it today, but a commercial section of Temecula
between what's now Diaz Road and Business Park Drive used to be an airport.

"Mention of the Rancho California Airport brings two types of responses,"
Murrieta historian Anne Miller wrote in a 2005 report for the Temecula
Valley Historical Society. "Most people are surprised to learn that there
ever was an airport in Temecula, while others have great stories and
memories" of it.

The airport lay north of Rancho California Road and west of what today is
Interstate 15.

"A current road, Rancho Way, crosses over what used to be the runway,"
Miller said.

 In the 1960s, the 87,500-acre Rancho California master-planned community
was under construction in what would later become Temecula. The airport was
created by the builders of Rancho California Plaza (today's Tower Plaza).
Developers commuted to the site by air and needed a landing strip. Miller
found a Los Angeles Times photograph from Nov. 6, 1966, showing a helicopter
towing an old plow to break ground on the airport.

The airport served small aircraft. Temecula resident Bill Harker told Miller
about his first flight into Rancho California Airport: "It was just a
1,200-foot gravel strip with one hangar, a small office and a few planes
tied down."

A 1967 aerial photo shows a single paved runway and no buildings. The
airport got incremental improvements, though. In 1968, an airport directory
listed it with a runway of some 3,000 feet in length. It gained lights for
nighttime landings. By 1982, Airmech Industries and Rancho Aviation managed
the airport, offering fuel, flight instruction, rental, charter and
maintenance service, Miller said. In the mid-1970s it charged $2 for
overnight tie-downs. Harker said Rancho Inn in the Plaza used to send its
manager to the airport to pick up incoming passengers in a Volkswagen bus.

Though Temecula was developing rapidly, the airport never grew into a major
hub, due in part to formidable winds that plagued the site.

"Frequent strong, gusty crosswinds were a serious hazard," Miller said, and
contributed to accidents, including fatal ones.

Local resident and historian Barbara Tobin recalled landing at Rancho

"It was quite a white-knuckle experience" due to wind, she said. "You had to
dive down and come to a stop quickly. It was kind of scary."

 Miller cites a Times story of May 15, 1976, that reported that airport
owner Kaiser-Aetna  closed the airport because its insurance company was
alarmed about accidents. Riverside County took over and reopened it.

Locals told Miller of picnics, barbecues and "hangar parties." One resident
recalled the airport hosting an encampment for Civil Air Patrol for its
cadets. But the Rancho California Airport closed for good in 1989, just
after a new airport opened in nearby French Valley. Planes and hangars moved
to the new airfield.

Harker remembered at least one pilot circling the business park, searching
in vain for the airport.

"Someone eventually contacted (him)," Harker told Miller, "and directed him
to French Valley Airport."

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