Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields:
California - Southeastern Orange County
© 2002, © 2013 by Paul Freeman. Revised 10/30/13.
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Capistrano Airport (revised 2/26/13) - El Toro MCAS (revised 10/7/13)
Santa Ana NAS / Hangar City Airport / Tustin MCAS (revised 10/30/13)
Capistrano Airport (L38), San Juan Capistrano, CA
33.48 North / 117.67 West (South of El Toro MCAS, CA)
A 1946 aerial view depicted the Capistrano Airport in its original location (on the northwest side of the San Juan Creek).
This small general aviation airport was apparently built at some point between 1945-46,
as it was not depicted on the 1945 San Diego Sectional Aeronautical Chart (courtesy of John Voss).
The earliest depiction of Capistrano Airport which has been located was a 1946 aerial view,
which depicted the field in its original location (on the northwest side of the San Juan Creek).
It had a single northeast/southwest runway & parallel taxiway.
A hangar & a few small buildings were on the north side of the field, around which were parked 3 light aircraft.
The earliest aeronautical chart depiction of Capistrano Airport which has been located
was on the 1948 San Diego Sectional Chart (according to Chris Kennedy).
It described the field as having an 1,800' unpaved runway.
The 1948 USGS topo map (courtesy of Scott O'Donnell) depicted the Capistrano Airport at its original location -
on the northwest side of the San Juan Creek,
south of the intersection of Alpaz Street & Camino Del Avion (appropriately enough).
The airport was depicted as having a single 1,300' runway, oriented northeast/southwest,
with 3 small buildings along the north side of the field.
A 1952 aerial photo showed that the original location of the Capistrano Airport had been removed,
and replaced with farming fields.
The Capistrano runway was moved due to complaints,
according to the book "From Jennies to Jets: The Aviation History of Orange County" (courtesy of Scott O'Donnell).
The airport was evident reestablished on the opposite (southeast) side of the San Juan Creek at some point between 1952-62,
The 1962 AOPA Airport Directory described the Capistrano Airport as having a single 1,200' paved Runway 4/22.
A 1,200' runway must have been awfully short!
Capistrano Airport, as depicted on the August 1963 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Bob Cannon).
The 1966 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
described Capistrano as having an even shorter runway - a mere 1,000 feet!
A 1969 aerial view of Capistrano Airport, with at least 39 aircraft visible parked on the ramp.
Photo is from "From Jennies to Jets: The Aviation History of Orange County" (courtesy of Scott O'Donnell).
The airport is depicted on the southeast side of the creek, which at that point had become a flood control channel.
The last aeronautical chart depiction which has been located of Capistrano Airport
was on the 8/14/75 LA Helicopter Aeronautical Chart.
The 1976 Pilot's Guide to CA Airports (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
depicted Capistrano Airport as having a 2,000' paved Runway 5/23,
with a parallel taxiway & ramp along the south side.
The operator was listed as Capistrano Flying Service.
An unfortunate accident on May 28, 1977 brought out a lot of negative community feelings toward Capistrano Airport.
A single-engine Citabria made a crash landing in the San Juan Creek (which paralleled the runway at Capistrano),
killing a girl who was riding her bike in the creek wash.
Bob Cannon (who ran a banner towing business at nearby Meadowlark Airport) recalled the details of the accident:
"I had just gotten my SkyAd business going when I was introduced to a 'competitor' from the east coast.
I hated the thought of having a new competitor but met the guy one day when he dropped in to L16.
His name was Albert Sibi Jr., and I hired him to do a job.
Back then if a guy told me that he had a waiver I was naive enough to believe it without asking to see the credentials.
On Memorial Day, 1977 Saturday the 28th of May Al was making a banner pickup.
He was not using the recommended procedure of having a 3' piece of plastic tubing
over the tow cable at the aircraft release end.
That tubing prevents the tow cable from getting tangled into the tail wheel & rudder levers.
More ever, it turned out that Al did not have a banner tow waiver nor even a commercial license.
He disappeared after the accident & to my knowledge was never again seen.
At least there was never any newspaper reporting of him nor any scuttlebutt."
According to Jim Higgins,
"I believe the Capistrano airport was closed (which, as memory serves, occurred in the late 1970s)
after a banner towing plane made an emergency landing & struck a child.
Ironically, the accident did not occur on the runway but in an adjacent dry river bed.
It probably gave the local populace the excuse they had been seeking to close the field."
Jim Bermingham recalled, “Capistrano Airport... was closed on 6/1/78.
I flew the last aircraft off of it that day.
The airport owners (property developers) were using the towplane accident as an excuse to close their airport,
so they could develop it for more lucrative uses (as commercial property).
The owners had earlier donated the airport to the city,
but the deed had a clause that the city must use it as an airport, or the owners could re-posses it.”
Strangely enough, even though the Capistrano Airport has been closed for over 20 years,
the San Juan Capistrano Municipal Code still has a section dealing specifically with regulating the Capistrano Airport.
It generally limited operations at the airport to non-commercial purposes,
other than those of Capistrano Flying Service.
A 1980 aerial photo showed that commercial buildings built along most of the former airport property,
but a short section of runway appeared to remain intact.
The 1994 USGS aerial photo showed that the last remaining runway section had been built-over at some point between 1980-94.
A circa 2001 aerial view of the site of the airport.
The site of the Capistrano Airport is located north of the intersection of
Camino Capistrano & Avenida Aeropuerto (appropriately enough).
Thanks to Scott O'Donnell for pointing out this airfield.
Santa Ana NAS / Hangar City Airport / Tustin MCAS (NTK), Tustin, CA
33.7 North / 117.8 West (Northeast of John Wayne Orange County Airport)
A 1942 U.S. Navy photo of Tustin's Hangar 1 under construction, with a blimp flying overhead.
This field was built as a blimp base in 1942 as Santa Ana Naval Air Station.
The predominant characteristic of this field is the image of its 2 huge blimp hangars
(which are the largest wooden structures in the world today).
The hangars are each more than 1,000' long & 300' wide.
Each hangar was designed to hold 6 blimps simultaneously.
In between the 2 hangars is a huge concrete circular blimp mooring pad.
Extending outward from the central pad are concrete taxiways
leading to numerous smaller concrete circular blimp mooring pads.
A 1943 aerial view looking south at NAS Santa Ana (National Archives photo).
Note the blimp to the right of the upper hangar, and another moored to the left of the hangar.
A 1943 photo of a Navy blimp (specific type unidentified) in front of one of Tustin's massive blimp hangars.
The front gate & the 2 blimp hangars in the 1940s.
A May 1945 view of 6 blimps fitting inside Tustin's Hangar 1 simultaneously.
Mark Lutz recalled, “My Father was a Navy Blimp Command Pilot at NAS Santa Ana in 1945.”
"Santa Ana (Navy)", as depicted on the August 1945 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).
The 1945 AAF Airfield Directory (courtesy of Scott Murdock) described the “Santa Ana Naval Air Station”
as a 1,606 acre irregularly-shaped field within which was a circular 2,000' diameter asphaltic concrete landing mat.
Two 1,058' x 297' wooden hangars were depicted on the southeast & northeast sides of the landing mat,
and a total of 6 smaller blimp mooring circles were located on the far sides of the hangars.
A 1946 aerial view depicted Santa Ana as having the 2 blimp hangars, the huge circular blimp mooring circle,
and 6 smaller blimp mooring circles.
At some point between 1943-46 a fixed-wing Runway 6/24 had been added,
extending northeast from the large mooring circle, in between the 2 blimp hangars.
A crosswind Runway 16/34 was also laid out over the mooring circle.
A closeup from the 1946 aerial view showing 9 single-engine fixed-wing aircraft southeast of Santa Ana's south hangar.
A Beech SNB inside a Santa Ana hangar during the base's 1946 Open House.
Curiously, the 1947 USGS topo map depicted a military airfield symbol (double circle) at the location of Tustin, but without any label.
John Voss reported, “Victor Smith was assigned to the base in 1947.
He commented that VU-7(a) was based at NAS Santa Ana for the continuation of pilotless aircraft evaluation.
VU-7(a) utilized Culver TD2C / Grumman F6F Hellcats as drone aircraft
with Beech SNB Expeditors as the drone controllers.
He commented that only one of the blimp hangers was active during his time there.
OLF Palisades was used for the flight operations (launch & recovery).”
Bill Coons recalled, “We used only one of the blimp hangars
but the other one was active with blimps & they were training for something.”
An undated photo of a blimp marked “U.S. Naval Reserve” inside a Tustin hangar (courtesy of Rex Ricks).
An undated photo of a Navy blimp control cab at Tustin (courtesy of Rex Ricks).
On December 20, 1948 VU-7a was decommissioned & VU-3 was commissioned, according to Victor Smith, via John Voss.
This took place in the blimp hangar at NAS Santa Ana.
The squadron was relocated to MCAS El Toro in 1948.
Santa Ana NAS was decommissioned by the Navy in 1949.
For less than 2 years, the huge former Navy blimp airfield was evidently reused as a civilian airport.
The March 1951 USAF San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
depicted "Hangar City" as a civilian airport (having a blimp mooring mast).
What an appropriate name for an airport with 2 huge blimp hangars.
The Aerodromes table on the chart described Hangar City as a commercial airport having 3 runways,
with the longest being a 3,000' hard surface runway.
The civilian use of the airfield ended in 1951, when the property was transferred to the Marine Corps,
which renamed it as the Marine Corps Air Facility Santa Ana.
According to The California State Military Museum, the station reopened during the Korean War.
Blimp operations staged a brief resurrection when the Navy established a 2-blimp
Naval Air Reserve Training Unit (NARTU) on April 1, 1951.
The Marines arrived the next month establishing a helicopter air facility.
Bill Griffith recalled, “My 1st exposure to the helicopter station was in the early 1950s
when our Cub Scout pack made a field trip to the base & I distinctly remember seeing blimps in Hangar 1 & helicopters in Hangar 2.
That would probably coincide with its return to military operations in 1951 but prior to 1955.
In those days, the base was known by its civilian nickname, 'LTA' which stood for 'Lighter Than Air'.”
A 1952 aerial photo showed a mere 2 fixed-wing aircraft & 2 helicopters,
as the only aircraft visible on the massive airfield.
Glenn English recalled, “I joined ZP-951 at the Santa Ana Base later that year until I went active in 1955 to Flight School.
I helped assemble 2 or 3 of the K Ships, probably in 1952-3.
We had an old pre-war G Ship when I joined that had an accident in the hangar, hurt some people in the air ballonet who fell to the concrete below.”
A photo of airship K-59 of the Naval Air Reserve Training Unit, Lighter Than Air,
from the 1952 MCAF Santa Ana Annual (courtesy of Craig Thorson).
Craig recalled, “My Dad flew the Sikorsky HRS helicopters there from 1951-53.
The Beechcraft behind & below the blimp is likely SNB-5, Bureau # 23841
which was based there for fixed-wing currency & instrument training.”
A circa 1953 aerial view (courtesy of Craig Thorson) looking northwest at a Sikorsky HRS-3 Chickasaw (BuNo 130237)
of Marine Squadron HMR-163 flying over the 2 MCAF Santa Ana blimp hangars.
Craig noted, “Those leafy things in the background are orange trees - once quite abundant in Orange County.”
The last photo which has been located of a Navy blimp at MCAF Santa Ana
was an August 1955 photo of 3 Navy blimps & several Navy fixed-wing aircraft (including at least one F4U Corsair) inside one of the blimp hangars.
"MCAF Santa Ana" was depicted on the September 1955 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
as having a 3,000' hard surface runway.
A small 3,000' runway had been built in between the "V" formed by the 2 blimp hangars
(which must have made for interesting turbulence during crosswinds),
along with a control tower nestled in between.
A 1956 aerial view looking west at MCAF Santa Ana.
According to The California State Military Museum, west coast blimp operations ended for good in June 1956,
when the Navy disestablished the NARTU.
MCAF Santa Ana eventually became the Marine Corps' primary west coast helicopter base,
operating Medium & Heavy Transport & Attack Helicopter squadrons.
The 1960 Jeppesen Airway Manual (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
depicted the curious runway layout of "Santa Ana MCAF":
the 2,000' diameter primary blimp mooring pad, along with 6 smaller blimp mooring pads,
as well as 2 paved runways (3,000' Runway 6/24 & 2,000' Runway 16/34)
which had been constructed over the primary blimp mooring pad.
The only hangars depicted were the 2 massive former blimp hangars.
A March 1966 photo by J. Costello of a CH-46A helicopter from HMM-165,
with one of Tustin's massive blimp hangars in the background.
"MCAF Santa Ana" was depicted on the 1966 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
as having a single 3,000' paved runway.
The remarks said, "Primarily a helicopter facility."
A spring 1968 photo by Joseph Jacobs looking west at the Santa Ana hangar & control tower.
On September 1, 1969, the base was renamed "Marine Corps Air Station (Helicopter) Santa Ana".
The unique facilities at Santa Ana were very well suited to large-scale helicopter operations,
as the blimp hangars were capable of providing indoor storage for huge numbers
of helicopters, & the blimp mooring pad provided acres of ramp space for parking.
Two modern hangars were eventually added on the edge of the
blimp mooring pad for helicopter maintenance.
At its peak, Santa Ana housed over 100 helicopters.
According to The California State Military Museum, the facility was renamed to MCAS Tustin in 1970.
Tustin's location also was very suitable for USMC helicopter operations,
as the surrounding mountain ranges included a total of 13 Confined Area Landing Sites,
at elevations ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level.
MCAS Santa Ana, as depicted on the 1971 DoD Instrument Approach Procedures (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).
It showed that between 1960-71, two very large rectangular paved ramps had been added for helicopter parking,
on the north & south sides of the blimp mooring circle.
A 1972 aerial photo depicted large numbers of helicopters parked on the rectangular ramps.
Rodney Yoakam recalled, “I was stationed there in 1972 with HMA-773.
The name then was Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, Lighter Than Air Facility, Santa Ana.”
Bill Griffith recalled, “I was living in base housing at the helicopter base from 1975-87
and flew El Toro Aero Club aircraft into the helicopter station several times
for open houses where Aero Club aircraft would be on static display.”
According to The California State Military Museum, in 1975 Malcolm Forbes used a Tustin hangar for his attempted balloon flight to Europe.
The same year, Universal Pictures used the station for the filming of “The Hindenburg”.
On April 23, 1976, the base was annexed within the city limits of Tustin
and on June 1, 1978, the name was again changed to "Marine Corps Air Station (Helicopter) Tustin".
An undated photo of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion undergoing maintenance inside one of Tustin's giant blimp hangars.
An undated view of Marine Corps CH-53 helicopters, dwarfed within Tustin's giant blimp hangar.
Armin Webster recalled, “I was stationed at MCAS Tustin from 1984-87.
In the Southwestern corner of the base were housed H&MS-16 (MALS-16),
Aviation Supply, GSE, and the Engine Test Cells
along with HMT-301 Training Squadron, which flew the CH-46, CH-53D, and the CH-53E aircraft.”
A 1986 photo by Chuck Wilson of a North American SNJ in Marine markings,
along with several other aircraft at Tustin for an airshow.
A 1986 photo by Chuck Wilson of a Goodyear blimp flying at Tustin for an airshow.
According to Jose Martinez (stationed at Tustin with HMT-302),
the blue-trimmed hangar was constructed for HMT-302 “in 1988 after the squadron split from HMT-301”.
A 1992 aerial photo by Clark Cook looking east at Tustin MCAS(H), taken when on approach to Runway 19L at SNA.
Tustin was still a very active airfield at this point – note the dozens of CH-53s & CH-46s parked on the ramp.
A 11/8/93 photo of a row of Marine CH-53E Sea Stallions on the Tustin ramp.
An October 1993 photo by Michael Baldock of a rare Kaman HOK-1/UH-43D Husky, painted in its Tustin colors.
It was one of 4 helicopters on display at the time along Tustin's west gate (note the CH-53 in the background).
An undated photo of a F4U Corsair fighter, which was presumably flown into the base for an airshow.
A poster for the 9/10/95 MCAS Tustin Open House.
Paul Freeman worked at Tustin MCAS in 1996, as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft,
completing the upgrade of the Weapons Tactics Trainers
(full-dome motion-base flight simulators) for the CH-53E & CH-46E helicopters.
The simulators were installed in a building just north of Hangar 1.
An appreciation for the massive size of the Tustin blimp hangars
may be gained via this undated photo of a Goodyear blimp inside a Tustin hangar (courtesy of Rex Ricks).
Due to Tustin's proximity to Hollywood & the unique imagery of the blimp hangars,
it has been used for location shooting for numerous movies & TV programs,
including JAG, The X-Files, etc.
As part of the Base Realignment & Closure process, Tustin was closed by the Marine Corps in 1999.
Most active-duty Tustin units were relocated to MCAS Miramar,
while others went to MCB Camp Pendleton.
The Reserve CH-53 & CH-46 squadrons were relocated to Edwards AFB.
Aerial photo circa 2000, after the base was closed.
Another rectangular paved ramp had been added on the northwest side of the airfield at some point between 1992-2003,
along with 3 large helicopter hangars – 2 on the northwest side, and one on the southwest side.
Lazlo Arato recalled, “In early 2000, I noticed a large twin-engine plane making several low passes over Tustin MCAS.
I recognized it a year later as part of the movie "Pearl Harbor", where Major Dolittle is training his squad for short take-off.
It's a fine honor to this airfield & the blimp hangars.”
An image from the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor”, showing a formation of B-25s overflying a Tustin hangar.
An image from the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor”, showing a B-25 Mitchel taking off from a Tustin runway,
with a Tustin hangar & the control tower in the background.
This may be the last time that aircraft operated from Tustin.
A 2002 photo by Michael Baldock of www.ghostbase.org of one of Tustin's massive hangars.
A 2002 photo by Michael Baldock of www.ghostbase.org of one of Tustin's hangars, which dwarfs the adjacent control tower (to the left of the hangar).
A 2002 photo by Michael Baldock of www.ghostbase.org of Tustin's abandoned control tower.
Note the Cessna flying overhead.
A 2002 photo by Michael Baldock of www.ghostbase.org of a former ammunition bunker at Tustin.
A 2003 aerial view by AirNikon looking east at Tustin (used by permission).
Following Tustin's closure by the Marine Corps,
one of the blimp hangars has been designated a national historic landmark,
and is to be preserved (the 2nd one presumably will be torn down).
Overall, plans were approved by the local government to reuse the property
for a mixture of purposes, including parkland & commercial development.
A March 2004 USGS aerial photo of the closed Tustin Airfield,
showing that both blimp hangars & the entire airfield still remained intact, at least for the time being.
A close-up of Tustin's Hangar 1 from the March 2004 USGS aerial photo.
A November 2004 aerial photo by Jonathan Westerling looking north at the abandoned Tustin Airfield
showed that the entire airfield still remains intact (for now), including both hangars.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman of the guard shack at Tustin's main entrance.
Paul Freeman visited Tustin in February 2005.
I found that I was only able to obtain views of the airfield from the perimeter,
as the entrance was locked up tight.
From what could be seen from the perimeter of the base,
the airfield facilities still appear to remain intact, with all runways & hangars still remaining.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman looking west at Tustin's Hangar 1, with the control tower on the left.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman looking along the profile of one of Tustin's massive blimp hangars.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman looking north at Tustin's Hangars 2 & 1.
Two 2005 photos by Brian Smole,
taken before & after Tustin's HMT-302 helicopter hangars was demolished.
Note that this hangar was of relatively recent construction – post-1988 – less than 17 years old. What a waste.
A September 4, 2005 aerial view looking northeast along Tustin's Runway 6 (copyright Brian Bartlett, used with permission).
Six helipads are visible among the former blimp mooring pad.
Brian Smolke reported in 2005, “In the past few months I've watched as redevelopment has started in force.
There have been large piles of concrete rubble in the western part of the base,
and I imagine that much of the tarmac has been demolished.
The small (compared to the blimp hangars) brown hangar on the south side of the base has also been demolished,
along with support structures to the east.
The main gate from Redhill Avenue has also been removed to make way for a new, wider road.
Current plans indicate the northern blimp hangar will be preserved,
while the southern blimp hangar will be demolished to make way for a road interchange.
This hangar might be one of the last things to go, though.
It seems like time is up for this base.”
Armin Webster reported in 2005, “From what was published in the Orange County Register
is that the Southwestern corner of MCAS Tustin is to be used to build a large shopping mall.”
A circa 2005 aerial photo looking north at Tustin's former control tower, in between Hangar 1 & the runway.
A redevelopment plan posted as of 2010 on the City of Tustin website.
Of the approximate 1600 acres, approximately 1294 acres have been conveyed to the City of Tustin, private developers and public institutions
for a combination of residential, commercial, educational, and public recreational & open-space uses.
The remaining 308 acres will be conveyed to other federal agencies, the City of Tustin and public institutions for the same uses.
One hangar (slated to be transferred to Orange County control) is depicted in the tan area lableled "Orange County Urban Regional Park"
and the other hangar (to be turned over to Tustin, and to be torn down & the property used for commercial buildings & parking) is depicted in the blue area labeled "GO".
An undated photo (posted as of 2010 on the City of Tustin website) of the Tustin control tower, presumably soon to be torn down.
A September 2010 photo of Mark Lutz in front of Tustin's Hangar 2.
Mark reportedm, “The Navy's closed base caretaker's office kindly granted me access to the hangars themselves.
My photos show the immense size of the hangars better than any photos I've ever seen before.
The WW2 blimp hangar is 1/5 mile long x 18 stories high.”
A September 2010 photo of Mark Lutz in front of Tustin's Hangar 2 airship door.
Mark reported, “There are 6 leaves - you can see 4 of them in this photo.
Each leaf is 120' tall, 37.5' wide, 3' thick, weighs 30 tons, and rolls on a rail.
It's like a giant's sliding closet door. The motorized door opening system takes about 2 minutes to fully open.
Each end of the hangar has one of these doors. This one is on the landing pad (West) end.
Each door pillar sits on a concrete footing 30' x 60', 8' thick, which in turn sits on over 100 pillars.
The doorways are structurally separate from the timber truss-work hangars because the wind load is more than the wood truss-work can handle.
Both of this hangar's doors are still fully operational.”
A September 2010 photo of Mark Lutz inside Tustin's Hangar 2.
Mark reported, “On the right, in the timber truss-work, note the ladders.
These were used by airship riggers to gain access to the catwalk about 150' above the floor.
Those timbers are 4x12 inches in cross section.”
A September 2010 photo by Mark Lutz looking east at Tustin's 2 hangars.
Mark reported, “The landing mat is being used to store fill.
The recent housing market collapse caused the developer to stop 'development' of the base.
The hangar on your right is threatened with tear-down when development resumes.
The hangar on your left is the one in my photos above.”
Mark Lutz reported in 2012, “The more Northern hangar is used quite a bit for television automobile advertisements -
if you know what it looks like inside, it is unmistakable every time it is used.
About the 2nd Tustin hangar: It is considered a little less earthquake robust than the Northern one.
I've looked at its construction history, and it sounds very robust to me.
Both hangars trusses sit on more than 1,000 concrete filled steel pipes sunk 40-60 feet down.
One was dug up to check its condition - it is very good.
The wood is heavily treated with borate salts which protect against fire and insects and rot, and which are, even today, considered reasonably safe for humans.
The timbers making up the trusses are substantial - the biggest ones are maybe 8x18 inch cross section,
many are 4x12 inch cross-section, and they're all bolted together with big 'ring' washers to spread the stress - good design.”
A 2013 photo of the experimental Aeroscraft rigid airship inside a Tustin hangar.
An amazing 2013 photo showing an experimental Aeroscraft ML866 rigid airship taking flight outside the Tustin hangars.
An undated photo showing the 625 square foot hole in the Tustin hangar roof after it collapsed on 10/7/13, damaging the Aeroscraft airship housed inside.
See also: http://members.aol.com/NARTUSA/BLIMPSPg3.html
El Toro MCAS (NZJ), El Toro, CA
33.7 North / 117.7 West (Southeast of John Wayne Orange County Airport)
A September 1943 aerial view showing the original configuration of MCAS El Toro, with 3 paved runways.
On May 5, 1942, Lt. Col. William Fox was designated the Navy Representative to the site selection committee
to make immediate surveys of Southern California to determine the best available sites for Marine Corps air bases.
He was told that 1st consideration should be given to a site
that would relocate the 5 Marine Carrier Groups serving at Naval Air Station, San Diego.
Marine Corps officials favored 5 sites: Santa Barbara, El Centro, Mojave, Miramar, and the bean fields at El Toro.
On Admiral Moffet's advice, Lt. Col. Fox came to Southern California to see the bean fields.
James Irvine offered Lt. Col. Fox other sites on his ranch for $1 a year,
including the Orange County Airport site, attempting to preserve the bean field crop.
The Marines decided they wanted the bean fields for their airfield.
In early 1942, the Marines paid James Irvine $100,000 for 4,000 acres,
including 1,600 acres designated for a lighter-than-air (blimp) base.
The bean field that became MCAS El Toro appeared to be perfect for Marine Corps requirements.
The field sat in a quiet valley at the base of the Saddleback Mountains.
Only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, it was fog free most of the year,
and the main Santa Fe Railroad line ran adjacent to the site's west border.
The bean field also perched just north of Camp Pendleton,
which served as the Marines Infantry Training Base & bombing range.
El Toro was also close to San Clemente Island, approximately 60 miles off the coast, which also served as a bombing range.
The seaport of Long Beach just north of El Toro was used extensively during World War II.
Government officials & businessmen in Orange County, unlike James Irvine, were extremely happy the Marines had landed.
The new air base would bring thousands of civilians & military people into the area, as well as jobs & money.
These politicians knew the military base had given birth to what would become one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.
On September 23, 1942, Col. Theodore Millard arrived in Southern California to take charge of base construction.
While pondering the enormous task before him,
he received a message that the 1st 80 Marines to be assigned to MCAS El Toro had arrived at the nearby train depot.
No military transportation existed at the time,
and no barracks had been built to house the Marines.
For the next several hours, Colonel Millard drove his private vehicle back & forth to retrieve the Marines for duty.
Construction on the air station began on August 3, 1942, eight months after the bombing at Pearl Harbor.
The 1st landing at El Toro was conducted by Major Carmichael,
who made an emergency landing while the field was still under construction.
Within 4 months, construction crews finished the runways, taxiways, and run-up areas.
A month later, in January 1943, the 1st hangars, barracks, and bachelor officer quarters were completed,
and the finishing touches turned a bean field into an air station.
Five asphalt runways & over 27 miles of paved highways were laid in 5 months.
The effort, although incredibly successful, did not proceed without problems.
In the very early days, the few wooden buildings all had very leaky roofs.
At one point, heavy rains turned the buildings into wash tubs
and the freshly turned dirt into a giant mud bowl; there were no laundry facilities to clean muddy uniforms.
One of the major disappointments occurred at the new commissary building.
While the roofers were hot-tarring the roof, the building caught fire & burned to the ground.
However, by December 1942, planes were taking off & landing.
When the skies were clear, Marines & construction workers alike watched the mock dog fights overhead
as pilots trained for combat in the Pacific.
Marine Base Defense Group 41 (MBDAG-41) was organized at El Toro on January 1, 1943.
Originally, the group was created to administer & supervise training activities of aircraft squadrons for combat duty in the Pacific.
Consisting of only a Headquarters Squadron, a Service & Maintenance Squadron and one Fighter Squadron,
MBDAG-41 eventually trained 20 fighter, dive-bomber, and torpedo squadrons for combat duty by the end of the war.
Headquarters Squadro0n 41 was probably the largest headquarters squadron in the Marine Corps' history,
at a peak strength of approximately 2,000 personnel.
During the same month, flight operations at El Toro accelerated into a high tempo.
The 1st squadron assigned to El Toro was VMF-113, flying SNJ trainers and F4F Wildcats.
Combat-tested flying squadrons FMF-212, VMF-223, VMF-224, and VMSB-232 arrived from the Pacific to retrofit & reorganize.
Squadrons flying F4U Corsairs, Douglas SBDs and Curtis SB2C Dive-bombers arrived from NAS North Island,
MCAD (Marine Corps Air Depot) Miramar, and from combat duty in the Pacific.
In addition, B-24 Bombers from the consolidated plant in San Diego
lumbered down the runways en-route to San Clemente Island for bombing practice.
On January 10, 1943, these squadrons fell under the command of the newly created Marine Aircraft Group 23.
During WWII, El Toro was used primarily as a training base for pilots, aircrews, and ground personnel,
but was also a major debarkation station for personnel being transferred to overseas duty.
The earliest depiction of El Toro which has been located was a September 1943 aerial view,
showing the airfield original configuration with 3 paved runways & a perimeter taxiway.
An early 1940s aerial view looking at El Toro's main entrance, with the control tower visible in the background (courtesy of Rex Ricks).
A September 1944 aerial view looking southwest at MCAS El Toro,
showing the 4th & 5th runways which had been added at some point between 1943-44, parallel to the original runways.
The 1945 AAF Airfield Directory (courtesy of Scott Murdock) described the El Toro MCAS
as a 2,319 acre rectangular property within which were 3 asphaltic concrete runways, with the longest being the 7,200' east/west strip.
The field was said to have a total of 10 wooden hangars, measuring 122' x 80',
and to be owned by the U.S. Government & operated by the Marine Corps.
El Toro was described as having 2 auxiliary fields:
Cal-Aero Outlying Field, 22 miles NNE, and Camp J.H. Pendleton Outlying Field, 33 miles southeast.
The earliest aeronautical chart depiction which has been located of El Toro
was on the August 1945 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).
It labeled the field as "El Toro (Navy)".
At the end of WWII, El Toro found itself on a short list of bases to be closed.
However, in 1946, Headquarters Marine Corps placed El Toro on its list of 7 installations to be maintained in active status.
Shortly thereafter, the commander of Marine Air Base West Coast, Major General Louis Woods,
moved his headquarters El Toro from MCAD Miramar, and the last remnants of the Marine presence at Miramar followed.
The 1947 USGS topo map labeled the field as “El Toro”.
Fifteen thousand visitors attended the 1st El Toro air show on the Nation's 1st Armed Forces Day in 1950.
In 1950, North Korean troops stormed across the 38th parallel into South Korea.
This 2nd conflict in the Pacific in less than a decade
confirmed the Marine Corp's need for a permanent West Coast air base
to ensure combat-ready pilots were available & as a debarkation point for marines going overseas.
In 1950, MCAS El Toro was selected as a permanent Master Jet Station
and center of support for the operation & combat readiness of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific.
To support those new roles, the aviation infrastructure at El Toro was expanded significantly.
At its height the airbase encompassed a total of 4,700 acres.
For most of the ensuing years, El Toro served as the primary base
for Marine Corps west coast fighter squadrons.
The 1st Marine jet squadron to fly in combat (VMF-311) in Korea came from El Toro,
departing in November 1950 with F9F-2B Panthers.
On January 15, 1951, HMM-161 was activated at MCAS El Toro.
HMM-161 was the 1st tactical helicopter squadron in the Marine Corps.
In September 1951, HMM-161 arrived in Korea to become the 1st helicopter squadron to prove itself in combat.
In 1955, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing arrived at El Toro from Opa Locka Florida.
El Toro's early 3rd MAW consisted of fighter, attack, photograph reconnaissance, observation, refueling, and bomber jet aircraft,
as well as, attack, utility, and transport helicopters, and transport planes.
In addition, training schools and courses included aircraft instrument school, maintenance schools,
survival, ejection seat, low pressure and water survival schools, and aircraft simulator training,
Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare School, jet transition squadron schools,
special weapons and tactical atomic weapons school, and the Staff Noncommissioned Officers School among others.
A 1950s USMC picture of several types of aircraft operated from MCAS El Toro (courtesy of John Voss).
The September 1955 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
depicted "MCAS El Toro" as having an 8,000' hard surface runway.
El Toro's longest runway was somewhat lengthened at some point within the next 4 years,
as the September 1959 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
depicted "MCAS El Toro" as having a 10,000' hard surface runway.
A June 1961 aerial view looking west at a formation of four VMA-121 A-4C Skyhawks over El Toro.
A 1962 aerial view looking north at El Toro.
In 1963, El Toro celebrated its 20th anniversary; 75,000 people attended the annual El Toro Air Show that year.
A 1964 photo of former astronaut John Glenn flying a Grumman TF-9J Cougar at El Toro.
Note the Cougar's unusual arrangement of a interior windscreen for the backseat pilot.
The Vietnam War incrementally turned into a full-scale conflict during the 1960s,
and the nation discovered for the 3rd time in 20 years that it was ill-prepared to go to war.
El Toro once again became a debarkation point for servicemen and women embroiled in the toils of war.
President Lyndon Johnson & later Richard Nixon landed at El Toro frequently to talk to the Marines, as well as conduct national business.
During the next 10 years of war, personnel & squadrons rotated to & from El Toro & Vietnam
in support of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in the Western Pacific.
The 1966 San Diego Sectional Chart (courtesy of Chris Kennedy)
depicted "MCAS El Toro" as having five paved runways, with the longest being 10,000'.
El Toro MCAS, as depicted on the 1971 DoD Instrument Approach Procedures (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).
At the end of the Vietnam War & the fall of Saigon,
thousands of Vietnamese refugees relocated to the U.S. with little more than the clothes on their backs.
During May of 1976, flights delivering Vietnamese & their families, who were loyal allies during the war,
arrived at El Toro at the rate of one per hour.
Over 50,000 people arrived as part of Operation New Arrival
and then departed for procession locations across the U.S.
With the cessation of the Vietnam War, defense budges were slashed once again & parts of the armed forces languished.
El Toro and Tustin lead the Marine Corps in the introduction & perfection of aerial weapons deployment and training,
as well as the perfection of helicopter assault tactics & strategy.
The 3rd MAW developed the Weapons & Tactics School located in Yuma, Arizona, to teach advanced aerial war fighting skills.
The mid-1980s saw the early remnants of the Marine Corps' only Aviation Museum assemble at El Toro.
The museum had a total of 41 airframes ranging from WWII to a modern-day F/A-18 Hornet.
A circa-1980s aerial view of F/A-18's on the El Toro ramp.
A 1993 DOD aerial view looking northeast at the large numbers of Marine aircraft parked on El Toro's southwest & southeast ramps.
In 1993, as part of the Base Realignment & Closure process,
El Toro became one of more than 20 California military bases slated for closure.
At the time its closure was determined,
El Toro was home to all of the Marine Corps' west coast F/A-18, C-130 & CH-46 units.
The last El Toro air show was attended by 2 million visitors in 1997.
A 10/12/98 photo by George Trussell of a captured Iraqi Bell 214ST of the Flying Leatherneck Museum at El Toro.
To prepare for El Toro's impending closure, all of the base's resident aviation units were relocated to Miramar Naval Air Station,
which had been vacated by the Navy & taken over by the Marine Corps.
El Toro was then closed by the Marines in 1999.
The extensive collection of aircraft of the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
was also relocated from El Toro to Miramar (according to Chris Kennedy).
A late 1990s aerial view of El Toro, taken shortly after the base was closed.
At the time of the base's closure, the El Toro airfield consisted of five runways
(the longest, the parallel 16L/34R & 16R/34L were 10,000')
and a huge amount of ramp & hangar space.
The possibilities of reusing El Toro as a commercial airport for the booming
Orange County area have aroused extreme political controversy,
ranging from the typical "not in my backyard" sentiments, to environmental activists.
In spite of all of these opponents, the population of the Los Angeles metropolis
hasn't stopped increasing, and perhaps the environmentalists would prefer
that another airport eventually be built from virgin undeveloped land elsewhere?
It would seem pointless to waste the billions of federal tax dollars that were
poured into the aviation facilities at El Toro,
when they are sorely needed to serve the expanding air travel needs for this area.
However, in spite of that logic,
the Navy announced in 2002 that they were bowing
to political pressure exerted by some local interest groups,
and were not going to allow El Toro to be redeveloped as a civil airport,
but rather would only permit the property to be used for non-aviation purposes.
The massive airfield facilities at El Toro (5 paved runways up to 10,000' long, numerous hangars, acres of concrete ramps)
are actually more extensive than those found at many commercial airports across the country.
Billions of dollars worth of aviation infrastructure, to be wasted. What a good idea.
An organization called The New Millennium Group
still hoped to convince officials to reuse El Toro as a passenger airport.
As of 2004, the project name for the non-aviation redevelopment
of this valuable aviation resource was called Heritage Fields.
A 2004 USGS aerial photo of the west side of the abandoned El Toro airfield,
showing hundreds of vehicles stored on the ramps.
An article in the 2/3/05 issue of the Wall Street Journal
reported that General Motors had set up 4 automobile test courses on the El Toro runways,
giving more than 10,000 invited potential customers the chance to drive practically every car in GM's lineup.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman of the guard shack at El Toro's Gate 2, on the north side of the field.
Paul Freeman visited El Toro in February 2005.
Views of the airfield area could only be obtained from the perimeter,
as the main gate of the former base indicated that it was currently being used by the California prison system.
From what could be seen from the perimeter of the base,
the airfield facilities still appeared to remain intact, with all runways & hangars still remaining.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman of the original sign at El Toro's Gate 2.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman of the sign at El Toro's Gate 2 describing redevelopment plans.
A February 2005 photo by Paul Freeman looking south at some of El Toro's hangars.
A May 2005 photo by Brian Smolke of El Toro's control tower, taken during the 'Final Salute' open house of MCAS El Toro,
“before the demolishing was to begin in earnest.”
A May 2005 photo by Brian Smolke of El Toro's former MAG-11 & MAG-46 hangars.
A circa 2005 aerial photo looking north at El Toro's former control tower.
A circa 2005 aerial photo looking north at hangars on El Toro's southwest ramp.
A circa 2006 plan for the non-aviation reuse of the El Toro property (courtesy of Chris Kennedy).
Note the “Historic Runway Segment” in the center, the “VOR Ice Cream Stand” just to the west,
and the “Preserved Hangars” on the north side.
An April 2006 photo by Rex Ricks of “a WW II era hangar which is near the CSU Fullerton El Toro Campus.”
Rex reported that the hangar was “still standing” as of 2007.
An April 2006 photo by Rex Ricks of a control tower on the northwest side of the base (near the Trabuco Road entrance).
Rex Ricks reported in 2007, “Unfortunately, the control tower in the center was recently demolished. Thanks a lot Lennar!
Like Irvine needs to make way for even more beige cooker cutter housing.
There are some pockets where you can now enter including the main entrance on Trabuco.”
The last plane to land & take off from El Toro was a Cessna 152 from a local flight school, Sunrise Aviation.
In 2007, a flight instructor made an emergency landing on El Toro's closed runway.
At first the local government was going to force the operator to disassemble the Cessna & truck it out,
before consenting to it being flown out.
Michael Church had the honor of making the very last departure from El Toro.
Ironically there is still an “aircraft” operating from El Toro:
a 10/14/07 photo of an Aerophile 5500 balloon which conducts tethered sightseeing rides from a newly-constructed pad adjacent to the former Runway 7L.
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