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Donnellys Dream - High-Flying Adventurer Brings Airport To Fruition
Dan Donnelly, 94, meets with James Davis prior to being taken on a flight in the fall of 2009. - photo by Leader File Photo
When Dan Donnelly came home from World War II, the decorated naval pilot had visions of starting his own flight school.
After flying classified combat missions in the South Pacific, the young Donnelly kept active flying in the Central Valley and discovered a flat and lengthy barley field ideal for a runway outside of the Oakdale city limits. Even though the city at the time had an existing airfield located near the current Sconza Candy factory (former Hershey’s site) on South Yosemite Avenue, Donnelly had dreams for a better facility to fly private aircraft.
With little fanfare, the farmland was measured for a runway, arrangements were made to lease the property with the Sierra Road ranch’s owner, Vernon Rodden, and the airport was born.
Donnelly, who lived in the area for 17 years before entering the Navy, prepared two runways about 1800 feet long and started construction on the site’s first hangars and an office building. Plans were also in place for additional hangar space and repair and service facilities.
On March 14, 1946, the airport was opened. The original airport runways were just well-oiled 1800-foot long dirt strips that were 60 feet wide.
The community interest in the airport was instantaneous with many returning veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. Donnelly operated his flight school called Oakdale Flying Service from 1946 to 1948, training hundreds of pilots using Cessna airplanes. Donnelly’s son, Kevin Donnelly of Oakdale, said interest in the school was so great that one individual, Bill Jeffers, would trade working at the airport servicing the planes for flight lessons.
Donnelly, who then opened Oakdale Feed and Seed on Yosemite Avenue, sold the school to Hank Manning who operated the flight school until 1958. Diamond K and F&N Flight Schools taught flight instruction at the facility after Manning.
Amerine Air operated on the original site with as many as 10 DC-3s flying in and out of the Oakdale airport into the 1960s. The family turkey ranch was only two miles from the airport and turkeys and turkey eggs were shipped to the Midwest from Oakdale for over a 20-year period. This was the only business at the Oakdale Airport that was not directly related to training or aircraft repair.
In 1959, still with the airport interest still in his heart, Donnelly, then an Oakdale city councilman, took the lead in proposing that the city purchase or lease the land from the Rodden family and run the airport as a municipal facility.
News articles from that time show not much variance from today’s council meetings regarding airport issues, as discussions then were lengthy and sometimes heated as airport users debated with city officials on running the site “as is” or investing in expensive improvements.
Then-Oakdale Mayor Harold Walther summed up that the practical thing for the city to do would be to purchase the land rather than rent it on a yearly basis. If assurances were given there would be little or no cost to the citizens, Walther and other council members were inclined to move forward. The council was favorable to the idea of taking over the airport with caution toward major expansions or upgrades to the facility.
Finally, at the end of 1959, the City of Oakdale bought the land from Rodden for $24,000.
Donnelly went on to serve on the airport’s commission for 24 years, and was instrumental in obtaining Federal Aviation Administration grants for funding of upgrades.
Kevin Donnelly recalls the fun and exciting times with his father at the airport.
“I remember one of my first times going up in a plane in 1967 with a friend, Paul Muniain,” said the now 50-year-old Donnelly. “Looking down, all the cars on the ground seemed so small.”
In 1993, the Oakdale City Council renamed the Oakdale Municipal Airport in Donnelly’s honor to “Dan Donnelly Field.”
Since being taken over by the city, the airport runway has been paved and extended to 3500 feet complete with lighting and beacons. Several hangars and additional buildings have also become part of the airport through the years.
On April 17, 2010, Dan Donnelly passed away at the age of 94. In a story in The Leader at the time of his death, son Corky offered some interesting tidbits about the man whose name is synonymous with the Oakdale airport:
• He was known to have made whiskey with his own father during Prohibition, when the family lived on Horseshoe Road.
• He received a government contract, following his service in World War II, to give flying lessons to GI’s returning from war, lessons so the GI’s could enjoy flying for pleasure.
• He was a member of the Oakdale City Council in 1956 when a time capsule was filled and sealed … and present 50 years later at the city’s Centennial Celebration in 2006 — 100 years since its incorporation as a city — when the time capsule was opened up.
• He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Oakdale for his efforts in bringing the airport to reality, his successful business venture and his work on behalf of the community on the City Council and Airport Commission.