California’s Airfest 2023

Dakota Territory Air Museum’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt 42-27609 in the skilled hands of Bernie Vasquez. [Photo by Adam Estes] EAA has not yet stated which aircraft Bernie Vasquez will be flying at AirVenture 2024.
Aircorps Art Dec 2019


By Adam Estes.

The October 14-15, 2023 weekend saw the second annual Central Coast Airfest at Santa Maria Public Airport, about 140 miles (225 km) northwest from Los Angeles, California. The event presents numerous aircraft from WWII up to modern military types. While not the first  airshows at this airport, it is the second to be organized primarily by the Planes of Fame Air Museum (PoF). This well known, well established flying museum is set to expand to the airport in order to provide an additional location to work in concert with the pre-existing museum in Chino, that has been a staple of the California warbird community for over half a century.

The Mosquito PZ474 in the Saturday morning marine fog. [Photo by Adam Estes]
The whole local area was covered with a thick marine layer (here seen behind the PoF Sabre and a USAF F-16) that cleared up by the time show was scheduled. (The airport is only 30 miles or so as the crow flies from the Pacific coast). [Photo by Adam Estes]

Unsurprisingly, as the primary organizer of the event, the Planes of Fame’s collection represented the largest single contingent of warbirds present. The museum flew a dozen aircraft from Chino, from their Allison-powered NAA P-51A Mustang ‘Miss Virginia’, and their Grumman F8F Bearcat, to their NAA F-86F Sabre and MiG-15.

Chris Fahey in the MiG 15 chases Steve Hinton in the Sabre. [Photo by Adam Estes]

Another aircraft flown up to Santa Maria by the Planes of Fame was their P-38J Lightning, which flies painted as ’23 Skidoo’, as flown in the South Pacific by Perry J. Dahl of the 475th Fighter Group. The PoF P-38, 44-23314, was actually flown at Santa Maria Airport during WWII, when the airport had been built as Santa Maria Army Airfield and was home to the 483rd Air Base Squadron’s complement of P-38 Lightnings – including 44-23314.

Eric Tucker stunting in the classic Cub’s classic routine. [Photo by Adam Estes]

After the war, Lightning 44-23314 would be used as an instructional airframe at the Hancock College of Aeronautics at Hancock Field (and now the site of Allan Hancock College) until it was acquired by pilot and collector Jack Hardwick, who then sold the aircraft to Planes of Fame founder Ed Maloney. While it is not the first time the Lightning has returned to Santa Maria, it is, of course, very rare indeed for a WWII aircraft to fly back to the same airfield it flew out of nearly 80 years ago. Additionally, the PoF Bell YP-59A Airacomet, 42-108777, which is currently in the Chino museum restoration hangar, was also assigned to Santa Maria Army Airfield with the 412th Fighter Group, and was also an instructional airframe for the Hancock College of Aeronautics shortly after the war!

The Planes of Fame’s P-40 in desert colors. [Photo by Adam Estes]

Missing man tribute. [L-R] Planes of Fame Bearcat, Corsair, Lightning and Mustang. [Photo by Adam Estes]

As has been previously annonced, the Planes of Fame will be opening a new museum location for some aircraft at Santa Maria Airport. The new site (which it is important to note is not intended to replace Chino but to complement it) is set to be located next to the airport’s Radisson Hotel and will open within the next two years.

Dakota Territory Air Museum’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt 42-27609 sparkles in the sun. [Photo by Adam Estes]

Several other rare types were also present: from Charles Somers’ de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito FB VI PZ474 (one of only four airworthy representatives of the type) to the Dakota Territory Air Museum’s Republic P-47D Thunderbolt 42-27609. This ‘Jug’ has had an incredible journey – being recovered from Papua New Guinea, to being beautifully restored by the talented team at AirCorps Aviation in Minnesota. The gleaming Thunderbolt is in the markings of another Pacific War veteran P-47D razorback, 42-27884, known as ‘Bonnie’ and flown by Major (later Brigadier General) William ‘Bill’ Dunham when he was the commanding officer of the 460th Fighter Squadron, 348th Fighter Group. Bonnie, which is now the sole Republic-built P-47 ‘Razorback’ in airworthy condition, was put through its paces with the skilled hands of Bernie Vasquez, who has been flying the aircraft since its first post-restoration flight back in May of this year. (‘Razorback’ P-47G Thunderbolt 42-25068 ‘Snafu’, also airworthy, is one of only two Curtiss-built examples surviving.)

Another rare aircraft that took to the skies was one of the last two surviving Howard 500 executive conversions of the Lockheed PV-1 Ventura / PV-2 Harpoon design, which took the air alongside P-38 23 Skidoo for a two ship, Lockheed formation.

Eric Tucker, Piper Cub and his ‘band of brothers’ children (as on his website ‘Tuckers Air Patrol‘) atop the mock ambulance. Acts and visible families like this are an excellent way of broadening public engagement with aviation. [Photo by Adam Estes]

Among the aerobatic performances at Santa Maria, Vicky Benzing flew her modified Stearman, which roared through the skies with its 450 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial as she looped and rolled over the field. Meanwhile, Eric Tucker flew his Piper Cub through several well-choreographed maneuvers, from a dead-stick landing to landing on the roof of a moving van painted as an ambulance. Dennis Sanders, famous for his experience in flying the Hawker Sea Fury, took up his T Mk 20, complete with his famous ‘Smokewider’ smoke system that traces the vortices from the aircraft’s wake.

Vintage jets were also included – from Jason Somes’ MiG-17 (in reality a Polish-built Lim-5) to Ace Maker Aviation’s T-33 Shooting Star.

Modern military aircraft were also demonstrated over Santa Maria, including a C-17 Globemaster III of the 97th Operations Group, which flew in concert with a KC-135 Stratotanker; a Boeing-Vertol V-22 Osprey displaying its unique tilt-rotor capabilities, and with the day rounded out by the Air Force’s F-16 ‘Viper’ Demo Team and Navy’s F/A-18 ‘Rhino’ Demo Team showing the incredible capabilities of their respective aircraft before concluding with a Heritage Flight flyby – the ‘Viper’ team flying with the PoF P-51A Mustang, and the ‘Rhino’ team with the museum’s F8F Bearcat.

US Navy Heritage Flight ‘Rhino’ with an F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Planes of Fame Grumman F8F Bearcat. [Photo by Adam Estes]

In the air after the show were several aircraft of the Cal-Aerofab Flight Academy, also based out of Chino. This organization of proud pilots, maintainers, and enthusiasts (of which the author is a proud member) has been active at local air shows in southern California and sold rides to many eager passengers of all ages and backgrounds to support their ongoing efforts to restore and to maintain their growing fleet at Chino.

Les Whittlesey’s Chino based immaculate Lockheed 12, NC18906. [Photo by Adam Estes]

Planes of Fame was not the only museum present at the AirFest, with the Estrella Warbird Museum in Paso Robles bringing in their C-47 ‘Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber’ to allow the public to walk through the venerable WWII-combat veteran, and the Santa Maria Museum of Flight had a tent at the show. Both museums have been covered in previous articles here (Profile: Santa Maria Museum of Flight) and here (Profile: Estrella Warbird Museum). Lastly, numerous civil and military aircraft were on static display on the flight line, from Carbon Cubs to F-35 Lightning IIs.

P-51D Mustang racer ‘Bardahl Special’ fresh from Reno. See our reports here and here. [Photo by Adam Estes]

Given the success of the show among both locals and visitors, the new Planes of Fame museum in Santa Maria looks to have a bright future. With the first phase being set to open within the next couple of years, the adage, “If you built it, they will come” should apply to Santa Maria just as it has for Chino. Adam Estes.

Californian light just over the ramp. [Photo by Adam Estes]

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