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URBAN HIKE

Airport Urban Hike Part III
updated: Jul 16, 2011, 9:45 AM

By Peter Hartmann & Stacey Wright

This week we continue our report about the airport and its surrounding area. Like Parts I and II of our story, all of the stuff you are about to see takes place (or can be seen) from City property. Even though it looks like Goleta, is surrounded by Goleta and acts like Goleta, this area is really within the City limits of Santa Barbara.

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As we've already mentioned, the airport "hike" is actually comprised of several hikes. Today we give you brief histories of a thriving Chumash village that began long before the arrival of the Spanish, and an important industry that occurred in a really huge aircraft hangar (think Guppy). We'll also share with you photos and information about local war memorials and, as geeky as it sounds, we'll tell you about a gas storage facility that serves a very useful purpose for the people of Santa Barbara. Lastly, we'll share with you photos of wildlife in and around the airport.

Located outside the City limits, on the way to UCSB, and adjacent to the freeway exit that takes you to the airport, sits a mesa-like area called Mescaltitalan Island. There are several variations of the name and spelling of this site, and we are using the one that was given to it at the time of Portola's expedition. The native Chumash who inhabited the island called this area Helo'.

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We were curious why this location had a clearly Aztec name, and got to work investigating it. What we discovered is that to the soldieries of the Portola expedition, the island looked so similar to an island and lagoon in Nayarit, Mexico that they gave it the same name - Mexcaltitan Lagon. Beloved and respected by the Aztecs, Mexcaltitan was believed to the birthplace of Aztec civilization. Later, the name of the local Mexcaltitan morphed into Mescaltitalan Island. But prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the original Chumash inhabitants of our Mescaltitalan Island, called it Helo‘, which is the Chumash word for ‘the water'.

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In pre-mission times, it was estimated that 800 people made Helo' their home. In those days the island was significantly larger, and was surrounded by water. In 1941-42, when fill dirt was needed to fill in the slough to make runways at the airport, the Army Corps of Engineers took the earth from Mescaltitalan Island for this use. There is a display at the Goleta Slough overlook (at the end of the off ramp) that gives information about the island, the inhabitants, and their way of life.

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Historical accounts written by Spanish explorers describe the Chumash living at Helo' as generous, lively, industrious and friendly. Crespi wrote, "All of them have greatly entertained us by coming over with their flutes and pipes, many of them heavily painted and wearing their large feather headdresses for the dancing they did for us". Other contemporaneous descriptions tell of a people who greeted the explorers with fish, seeds, skins, basketry and other gifts. The Chumash at Mescaltitalan Island lived in round reed huts that were laid out on a grid. They slept on elevated cots inside the huts, stored seeds and grains inside their homes and dried their fish on the roofs of the huts. Evidence of the Chumash village is present in the middens that are still visible around Mescaltitalan Island.

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Located under Mescaltitalan Island, is what is reported to be the largest underground natural gas storage facility in the world. At this site, natural gas produced from around the country comes in via an underground pipeline; during the summer months when demand is low, the excess is stored at this Southern California Gas Company facility. During the winter months, when demand increases, the reserves are tapped for our use. Did you ever wonder about all those big pipes that run along the freeway exit? Well wonder no more.

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The present-day Goleta Slough is all that remains of what had been the navigable lagoon surrounding Mescaltitalan Island. Over the years, overgrazing followed by severe brush fires and rains led to a major erosion problem. As a result, the lagoon becomes filled with silt, creating the salt marsh we see now. In the early 1940's, when the runways were built at Santa Barbara Airport, the salt marsh was reduced even more. Today, the Goleta Slough Ecological Reserve is administered by the California Department of Fish and Game. It contains approximately 430 acres of wetland habitat, which is only about a third of what it had been in the 1800‘s and before, when it encompassed approximately 1,150 acres

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As part of a restoration and preservation project of the natural habitat in the salt marsh and slough, the Federal Government is funding the Natural Plant Nursery Project. The project aims to restore the disturbed areas of the slough and surrounding areas to a more natural environment; as such, part of the effort involves restoring both the flora and the fauna of the Goleta Slough. During our hikes on City property in and around SBA, we noticed a wide variety of plants and animals.

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And speaking of aviation...we now return to the airport proper to tell you about the most massive building on the airport property. The hangar, known by many as the "Tracor Aviation" hangar (which it was in the 70‘s or thereabout) has been divided, and now serves as the headquarters of Decker's and is also the home of Fed-Ex.

Send this picture as a postcard

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However, this hangar has a long and impressive history dating back to the mid-1960's, when it was built to manufacture the Guppy aircraft, made by Aero Spacelines.

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There were a total of three Guppy Aircraft models built at the Santa Barbara Airport - the Pregnant Guppy, the Super Guppy and the Mini Guppy. They had the largest cargo compartment of any aircraft at the time, and were built to transport parts for the Saturn Rocket boosters, from the manufacturers on the West Coast to Cape Canaveral in Florida. Guppies were modified Boeing prop-driven aircraft, and therefore ultimately became obsolete with the rise of commercial jet liners. Interestingly, the Guppy was first piloted by Clay Lacy and John Conroy; and it was Clay Lacy who provided the vintage DC-3 for the gala opening of the new SBA terminal last month.

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It should be noted that manufacturing of the Guppy aircraft didn't originate in Santa Barbara; rather they were first built at the Van Nuys Airport in the San Fernando Valley. However, once the decision was made to move the fabrication operation to the Santa Barbara Airport, the massive hangar was built and put into use.

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Ironically, in the early 1970‘s, Airbus Industries used Aero Spaceline's Super Guppy (made of Boeing parts) to transport sections of their newly manufactured airliners to the factory in Toulous, France. Now the major competitor of Boeing, it can be said that all early Airbus planes were delivered on the wings of a Boeing. Also in the 1970's, Aero Spaceline was taken over by Tracor Aviation, which a few years later folded due to a slump in the aviation industry.

In 1975 Clenet Coachworks, the manufacturer of high-end cars with 1930's styling with modern technology was looking for a factory and the old Guppy hangar seemed to be the perfect place. Unfortunately that venture was also relatively short-lived, and in the 1980's folded after producing approximately 500 cars and surviving ownership and management of several different people. Some of the cars (many of which were sold to celebrities, sports figures and royalty) still exist today, but are rarely seen on the streets of Santa Barbara.

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There are a number of historic markers and memorials at and around the airport, marking important locations, memorializing important events and honoring the men and women who have served our country through their military service. We encourage you to take a trip out to the airport and its surrounding streets to see for yourself these various memorials. Some are plaques, some are statues, and some are streets named for local men who perished (we've included only a fraction of them here). All of them are evocative and reminded us to be thankful for the generous service of others.

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The World War II Memorial sits adjacent to Long Term Parking and is inscribed with the names of local service personnel. It also bears an inscription attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that reads:

"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to return".

Well said for a guy who died in 1519, without having personally experienced the thrill of flight. We believe old Leo would think our airport is pretty cool…just as we do!

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Last, and by no means least, we share with you a photo of James Dean in his sweet racing car...why? Because legend has it that back in the day when there was a race course at the Santa Barbara Airport, Mr. Dean used to come to Santa Barbara and race...we bet you didn't know that about our very, very special little airport!

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As always, we encourage you to go on foot and explore our great community, to discover new and wonderful things and above all to keep your eyes, ears and minds open in your travels.

 

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