Budget Cuts Threaten Aviation Collection : History: Memorabilia of the Mira Loma Jail site’s use as a wartime pilot-training base could disappear if the facility is closed.


Over the past several years, Nick Lopez has become the keeper of a slice of little-remembered history: The story of how this high desert town, one of Southern California’s aviation pioneers, and the British Royal Air Force combined to help wage the Allied air campaign during World War II.

The collection of memorabilia is perhaps the least known of its kind in the region, literally having been locked away for years in a rather unlikely locale. But now, because of the county’s budget crisis, this unusual collection is in danger of disappearing altogether.

Lopez, a 50-year-old amateur historian, is also a Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant at the county’s Mira Loma Jail in Lancaster, where the collection has been housed. The jail’s brief closure by the county last month due to a budget shortfall has put the future of both the facility and Lopez’s collection in jeopardy.


The memorabilia tells how, long before the jail was built, Mira Loma got its start as a civilian-run flying school that produced about 7,000 military pilots during the war years, and was one of only a handful of civilian schools in the nation to help train British pilots early in the war.

The collection also helps shed light on the flight school’s founder, Ret. Major C. C. Moseley, a World War I combat pilot who became one of Southern California’s aviation pioneers from his base in Glendale, long managing that city’s once preeminent commercial airport for the region.

In his four years at Mira Loma, Lopez built the collection into more than 150 items including artifacts, photos and booklets that recount the history of War Eagle Field, as the site was known during World War II, and of the Polaris Flight Academy, Moseley’s operation there.

But Lopez was forced last month to empty the collection’s glass display cases in Mira Loma’s officers’ dining room to prepare for the facility’s supposed May 25 permanent closure. Sheriff Sherman Block said he didn’t have enough money to keep the jail open.

Mira Loma did close that day, but unexpectedly reopened three days later after a showdown between Block and the county Board of Supervisors led to a temporary funding bailout. However, because Mira Loma’s future remains in doubt, Lopez said his collection for now will remain boxed in his garage.

“This kind of became a hobby with me. The more I got into it, the more and more it got interesting,” said Lopez, a 28-year department veteran who is the jail’s scheduling and training sergeant. “People started telling me a little bit about this and that, and I got curious. That hooked me.”


Before Mira Loma’s respite, Lopez was ready to send letters to the former pilots and instructors at War Eagle Field who had contributed to the collection asking if they wanted their material back. Now, Lopez worries whether a still-possible closure will force him to send those letters.

During his years at Mira Loma, Lopez said he has never been contacted by any historian from outside the area about the collection. And it had few visitors, being locked behind the jail’s barbed wire-topped fences. As the sergeant put it, “I don’t think the big world knows about this at all.”

The flight academy in Lancaster, located at what is now the southeast corner of Avenue I and 60th Street West, opened in August, 1941, to train Royal Air Force cadets from Great Britain, shifted to American pilots by early 1943 and remained in operation through August, 1945, records show.

Today, the Lancaster site houses the county’s Mira Loma Jail and High Desert Hospital. Starting in the mid-1940s, the state used the site to hold youthful offenders, but the Sheriff’s Department took it over in 1953, operating various jail facilities there ever since except for a closure from 1979 to 1980.

The Lancaster academy was one of four in Southern California operated by Moseley during the war. The others were Cal-Aero Academy in Ontario, Moseley’s Glendale headquarters and the original Mira Loma Flight Academy in Oxnard, which relocated, bringing its name to Lancaster in mid-1944.

Upon his death in 1974 at age 79, newspaper accounts estimated that Moseley’s academies had trained more than 25,000 pilots and 5,000 mechanics, most for the U. S. military during the war years at government expense. About 7,000 of those pilots came through Lancaster, including about 400 for the RAF.


A friend of then-Army Air Corps brass, Moseley was one of a handful of aviation businessmen who by 1939 was encouraged by the government to establish civilian pilot training schools. The British were among his earliest clients, desperate to gain more pilots and train them far from the raging Battle of Britain in 1940.

Moseley also was a founder of Western Air Express, which later became Western Airlines, and from 1934 through the 1950s ran the now-closed Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale. It previously hosted the first Los Angeles-to-New York commercial flight, piloted by Charles Lindbergh.

Even after more than 50 years, some of Moseley’s buildings at the Mira Loma site still stand and are used today by the jail, including the control tower, two hangers large enough to hold 45 World War II-era airplanes each, and several barrack complexes where pilots once lived.

In October, a group of about 20 former RAF pilot-graduates and their American flight instructors from War Eagle Field, all in their 70s or 80s, held a 50th anniversary reunion at Mira Loma. The occasion helped swell Lopez’s collection further as some men donated their own mementos.

Many of the artifacts in Lopez’s collection came from Lompoc resident Louis Stumbaugh, 73, a then-civilian American flight instructor who trained the RAF cadets at Lancaster in 1942. He had saved boxes of material in his garage for decades until Lopez tracked him down in 1991.

A large collection of newspaper clippings and photos of the era was contributed by Tim Moore, a project manager at High Desert Hospital who said he spent more than a year as a graduate student researching the area’s history to prepare for the hospital’s 25th anniversary in 1986.


In an interview, Stumbaugh recounted how the flight instructors at Lancaster had to alter their military-type uniforms by replacing brass coat buttons, altering their cap insignia, and painting their officers’ collar bars black because they were still civilians.

The training at Lancaster had begun in 1941 before the United States entered the war, so military involvement was a sensitive issue. Nonetheless, the Army Air Corps provided the RAF the necessary training planes under the Lend-Lease Act. But the British paid for their pilots.

At the time, Lancaster was little more than a tiny town, and Mira Loma was located about five miles to the west in open fields. But within months of acquiring a square mile area, Moseley and his academy, said to cost $400,000 at the time, were ready to take off.

The British pilots underwent a 20-week course and had new contingents of 50 or so arriving almost every month, according to accounts at the time. Up to 200 pilots at a time lived on-site, but the influx of employees set off a housing hunt in the community.

According to news accounts, the British pilots were a popular presence in Southern California, hitchhiking to Hollywood for celebrity parties, playing soccer matches against area aircraft company workers, and even marching in several parades, including one at the Coliseum in mid-1942.

Once the pilots completed their training in Lancaster, in a historic quirk, the airplane many ended up flying during the war was called the British Lancaster bomber.


One news account said the RAF had direct contracts with six civilian training schools in the U. S., but that Lancaster was the only such site in California. About a year after Lancaster opened, however, the government moved to take over the sites for American pilots. Whereas the British pilots did a complete training program at War Eagle Field, the subsequent Americans first underwent only the middle phase and later only the initial phase of their training there. Members of the famed Eagle squadrons, Americans who flew for the RAF, also trained at the Lancaster site.

But as the war wound down, the need for the pilot training schools declined. Moseley’s school and those of others were being shut down. He kept busy, though, with the Glendale airport, which finally closed in 1959, and with developing the huge Grand Central Industrial Centre, which still stands nearby.

Some of the barracks built for the American pilots after the Lancaster site opened were used to house inmates as recently as last year, Lopez said. At one time, there was discussion of demolishing them to make way for a jail expansion, but the county’s troubled finances killed that plan.

Lopez in recent years even talked his fellow Mira Loma deputies into adopting the name War Eagles, after the old field, for their athletic teams and having a large logo painted on their gym wall. But staff cutbacks related to budget cuts also snuffed that activity.

To this day, though, the Mira Loma Jail is said to be haunted by the ghost of an RAF pilot who was killed in 1942 when he walked into the propeller of a taxiing airplane. Over the years, Lopez said, people at Mira Loma have claimed to have spotted a figure dressed in flying clothes.

Researcher Julia Franco contributed to this story.