The latest Santa Barbara-Goleta Airport Terminal opened in 2011. | Photo: Justin M. Ruhge

For over 90 years now, the history of the Goleta Valley has been entwined with the airport. Whether it’s called the Santa Barbara Airport at Goleta or the Santa Barbara-Goleta Airport, it is located right in the middle of this community but serves the whole Central Coast.

Santa Barbara and Goleta were locations for the earliest developments in aviation. A number of small airfields were located in both communities as early as 1917 and both Lockheed and Northrop started in Santa Barbara.

The first official government-recognized airfield was located at the present-day Santa Barbara Golf Course.  Earle Ovington, the first pilot to carry the U.S. mail, originated and operated the Casa Loma Airfield.  As with most “airfields” in those days they were just fairly level grass fields.

Santa Barbara-Goleta Municipal Airport, 1936 photograph of the original terminal and first control tower in the northeast corner of the present airport. The United Airlines Airplane is a Lockheed Silver Falcon Electra. | Photo: Courtesy of Airport Administration.

The Casa Loma Airfield operated between 1920 and 1931, after which the city withdrew its permit. The airport was too close to town and became a noise nuisance and danger to the nearby housing districts. The field was limited in length, rough and had no room to expand.  The field closed and the famous hangar was moved to Hollister Avenue in Old Town Goleta where it became the Santa Cruz Market.  A historical site marker notes the history of the building.

Goleta had the only extensive piece of flat land in the area, eight miles around the edges of the Goleta Slough and a long way from Santa Barbara. Only farm and dairy land were nearby. To the south was about two miles of a low-lying shallow slough, a good place for an airport.

A 1947 photograph of the United Airlines Terminal and Administration Offices Built in 1942. | Photo: Courtesy of the Airport Administration

Lincoln Beachey flew the first airplane across the Goleta Valley in 1914. In 1920, the U.S. Forest Service operated a field for its fleet of forest fire-spotter planes on the ex-Delco Electronics Systems property south of Hollister. The first air crash in the Valley occurred on the corner of Hollister and Los Carneros.

Gordon Sackett’s and Royce Stetson’s 1928 landing on a Goleta cow pasture eventually led to a land lease with Oakley and Bonetti, the owners of a local dairy, so the two aviators could begin a flying school. The first aerial photograph of the valley, taken in 1928, shows the hangar for this school about where the Super 8 Motel is on the corner of Fairview and Hollister today.  Soon after, County road foreman Leo Hanley had a County road-grader scrape off a 3,000-foot landing strip running southwest from this corner, thus informally defining the location as an airport.

In 1930, two 4,800-square-foot hangars were constructed near this corner by F. Stearns II for use by his Santa Barbara Airways. These two hangars are still in service today.

Then, in 1932, Pacific Seaboard Airlines first brought commercial air service to the Valley. Later, on October 1, 1936 United Airlines inaugurated passenger service. United built a small terminal between the two hangars, and a control tower was built on top of the hangar farthest west.

In 1941, the City of Santa Barbara purchased the leased land for the existing airport from Oakley and Bonetti, as well as other contiguous tracts, and established the Municipal Airport. The airport groundbreaking was held on June 9, 1941, with a huge barbecue sponsored by the Goleta Rotary, Goleta Lions, Goleta Women’s Club, Valley PTA, and the Farm Bureau.

With funding from the U.S. Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction in late 1941. The area of the airport was raised 12 feet by using fill taken from Mescaltitlan Island located in the middle of the Goleta Slough. And on February 1, 1942, United Airlines began work on its new passenger terminal, which we know today as the old Spanish-style city terminal.

Santa Barbara—Goleta Airport Terminal in 1991.

In June 1942, the 11th Naval District took over the airport property and spent about $10 million for improvements to construct the U.S. Marine Base. Then, following the end of WWII, on February 28, 1946, the airport reverted back to Santa Barbara from naval control.

One of the most important events in the history of the airport was the annexation of the property to the City in 1960 by means of a 300-foot wide, 37,000-foot long corridor out into the ocean east down the coast and back into Santa Barbara, so that the property was actually contiguous to the town of Santa Barbara. Such gerrymandering would not be allowed today by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).

In 1962, a new control tower was constructed to replace the first tower built by United and the second, the Marine base tower.

Santa Barbara-Goleta FAA Control Tower opened in 1998. It was the fourth tower on the field. | Photo: Justin M. Rughe

Modern jet aircraft service first arrived in 1965 when Pacific Airlines landed the first Boeing 727.

In 1967, the United Airlines lease for its terminal built in 1942 expired. The City of Santa Barbara acquired the property for its terminal and dedicated its new terminal on August 30, 1969 to Earle Ovington, its earliest aviation pioneer.  

The fourth FAA control tower, located on the Hollister Avenue side of the airport, was dedicated in 1998.

Due to continued growth of the airport traffic, the venerable Spanish Revival terminal was replaced by a much larger, shiny white, new terminal 200 feet to the south in 2011.  

With the continuous growth of the Central Coast, the Goleta community and the Santa Barbara Airport have grown physically together to intensify the meaning of “the airport in our midst.”

References: In putting together this article, Lompoc-based historian Justin M. Ruhge referenced his own book, Looking Back (1991) as well as Goleta the Good Land by Walker A. Tompkins (1963).  

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