By Carl Molesworth, Petaluma Historical Library and Museum Volunteer
When the Petaluma Municipal Airport opened for business in 1985, it marked the culmination of a 40-year, off-and-on effort to build a city-owned airfield. It all started at a “Breakfast Forum” of city leaders at the Hotel Petaluma in September 1945. Aviation had made great strides during World War II, which had just ended, but Petaluma was considered at risk of missing out on the postwar boom that everyone expected because it didn’t have an airport.
It seemed as if momentum might be building for a municipal airport, especially considering that the Civil Aviation Authority (forerunner of today’s FAA) had already identified Petaluma as a prime location for building an airport. But enthusiasm for a municipal airport waned as two private airports, located at opposite ends of McDowell Road just east of the city, became established and enjoyed success operating flying schools. Why should city taxes be used to build an airport when Petaluma already had two of them?
By 1960, the only airport still operating in Petaluma was George Justman’s Petaluma Sky Ranch on East Washington Street. The airport was thriving, but residential development was squeezing it. There was no room to expand its short runway, much less build further infrastructure. In 1962 the Petaluma Area General Plan recommended moving the airport due to the encroachment of housing at Sky Ranch. Response was tepid. The next push for a municipal airport came in March 1965, when the mayor said the city was making a formal application for federal airport site designation in preparation for addressing Sky Ranch’s future. Again, the issue faded away.
Another 15 years passed before Petaluma finally was forced to confront the issue of its airport. On Jan. 2, 1982, Sonoma County approved an updated five-year aviation plan, with the new Petaluma airport listed as top priority for funding in 1982-83 and 1983-84. The cost of new airport was estimated at $3 million; and 90 percent would be covered by the FAA. Engineering and property acquisition took nearly two years. Construction of the 3,600-foot runway began shortly after July 3, 1984, when Brutoco Engineering and Construction Inc. of Fontana, CA, was awarded $1.6 million contract to build Phase 1 of the Petaluma airport project. The work included runway, taxiways, runway lighting, storm drainage improvements, tiedowns, fencing and erosion control. Work had to shut down during the wet winter months, but by July 29, 1985, the newly completed runway at Petaluma Municipal Airport already was in use, and the city was gearing up for Phase 2 of construction, to include water and sewer lines, access roads, fueling facilities and 44 tie-downs.
The big day finally arrived on Sept. 2, 1985, when Air Fair ’85, a day-long “extravaganza,” marked the official opening of Petaluma Municipal Airport. With a large crowd on hand, festivities included balloon rides, aerobatic acts, fly-bys of vintage aircraft and parachute jumps. Celebrities attending included George Justman, who had left Sky Ranch some years before, and Col. “Pappy” Boyington, a retired Marine fighter ace of World War II and inspiration for a popular television show of the time. Newspaper columnist Bill Soberanes reported that, ironically considering Petaluma’s history, the crowd was so large that cooks for the morning breakfast ran out of eggs.
In the nearly 40 years since it opened, Petaluma Municipal Airport has matured into a top-notch facility. It is described as a class G general aviation airport featuring a single 3,600-foot-long, 75-foot-wide paved and lit runway 11-29; Mangon Aircraft maintenance facility; and Petaluma Pilot Training Center. Hangars in multiple sizes and tie-down spaces are available for both single- and twin-engine aircraft. The airport currently has about 240 aircraft in 160 city-owned hangars and 62 tie-downs, according to the Petaluma Area Pilots Association.
Photo of Sky Ranch circa 1973.