Steve Sappington had flown into New Cuyama Airport (L88) in California several times in the years leading up to his formal involvement with the facility. He said the runway during his first visit in 2008 was “in decent shape.”
Sappington’s second trip in 2019 was a wholly different experience. The airport, active since 1952, had begun showing its age.
“The airport and property went through a few different hands and ended up with a gentleman who wanted to put it in the hands of the community through a nonprofit organization,” Sappingotn said. “So, he donated the airport and property to a nonprofit called Blue Sky Center. They are a community development organization, whose objective is to help the people of the Cuyama Valley. They always tried to take care of the airstrip but didn’t have a lot of money to do so. As a private GA airport, they are not eligible for federal airport grants.
“I flew back to the airport in 2019, and there were weeds all over the runway, so I had to be careful about how I landed. The folks at Blue Sky explained that their mower had broken and were unable to mow the runway. That kind of gives you a feel for what kind of condition the surface was in. Caltrans [California Department of Transportation] closed the airport for that and a few other issues. So, I asked whether any pilots had offered to help reopen the airport. I was told that some had offered to help but hadn’t come through. I thought maybe I could provide a focus for pilot support and see if we could reopen the airport.”
Since that time, Sappington and his wife, Nancy, have been an integral part of the flurry of activity at the airport. He explained that in order to recertify the airport, Caltrans required three major repairs: the runway, the runway overrun safety area, and the segmented circle.
It took a lot of effort to see the improvements through, according to the couple. A sizable collection of people pitched in to help get the airport reopened, including a dedicated aviator and entrepreneur from the northern part of California.
“About the time that we realized that the runway couldn’t be patched and had to be resurfaced, Blue Sky Center received an enquiry from a fellow pilot and Cessna 182 owner by the name of William Randolph Hearst III,” Sappington said. “He is in publishing, like his grandfather was, and was in New Cuyama a few decades before doing an article about the nearby [Sisquoc] Condor Sanctuary. So, he knew about the airport and the town, and reached out to the airport manager, [Emily] Johnson, asking how he could help. It was great timing, as I had come up to speed with the airport’s issues, and he came in saying that he might like to help.
“In the fall of 2021, at a volunteer work party event, we were trying to figure out our options for reopening the airstrip when one of the pilots, Mike Kent, asked if he could call the Caltrans aeronautics office to see if they could help. We huddled on the tarmac around Mike’s cell phone and explained our dilemma to [agency safety officer Dan] Gargas, who spent 40 minutes with us discussing some possible options to reopening the airport.
“When I later conveyed our Caltrans call to Mr. Hearst, he asked for a range of bids to better understand the options. It became apparent we needed a formal group to manage the scope of the effort. We formed the ‘L88 Circle’ with [Emily], Mike, Nancy, and glider pilot Kevin Shaw. With the help of another pilot, Jim Mitchell, a civil engineer and contractor, we gathered several rounds of quotes and found an inexpensive yet robust approach for paving the runway.”
These conversations would quickly take hold and improvements made.
“Mr. Hearst graciously provided the funds for the airstrip’s repavement and reconstruction of the runway safety areas,” Sappington said. “We reached out to the pilots and aviation enthusiasts for the remaining funds needed for airport striping and necessary improvements to the parking area. Work started on July 11, 2022, with Nancy and I as the Blue Sky Center project managers. With the support of the Blue Sky Center staff, many aviation volunteers, and dedicated contractors, the construction was completed on time.”
To the excitement of general aviation pilots in the area, New Cuyama Airport reopened in October 2022. The airport now boasts a smooth asphalt runway that measures 3,380 feet long. The Sappingtons emphasized that the airport is “away from it all.” But its remoteness, yet close proximity to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, is one of its biggest draws to Southern California aviators, not to mention those from nearby states.
“It’s a unique place and it is so remote,” Nancy Sappington said. “You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, and you are. The runway is longer than the town, which is three blocks wide. There is camping right next to the airstrip. We have received one grant from the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) and are in phase one of that project, putting in some shade structures, platforms to put tents on, and signage. We would also like to create an area for big tire folks to taxi off the runway to a camping area that’s a little more remote with a shower facility.”
She also highlighted several other overnight accommodations nearby, including rentable huts and the Cuyama Buckhorn, a renovated historic roadside resort that reportedly offers pilot discounts.
Steve Sappington also spoke to the future of New Cuyama Airport.
“The [Blue Sky] board is trying to plan for recurring maintenance of the runway, as well as future improvement projects,” he said. “We would also like to make it easier for people to visit things, such as Carrizo Plain National Monument, which is next door. We just had a superbloom, which was so magnificent.”
“And one of the coolest things to do here, since it’s a daytime-use-only airport, is going and sitting out on the runway at night and stargazing or watching a launch from Vandenberg [Space Force Base]. It’s kind of magical, and the feeling of remoteness and solitude is something that’s hard to get from the metropolitan areas that are only an hour or two away for pilots. That’s one of the big draws, I think.”
Pilots can stay apprised of New Cuyama Airport’s progress, as well as contribute to its efforts, at L88 Airstrip—Cuyama (visitcuyama.com).