Flights & Fancy: The El Toro Follies

Whimsy, nostalgia, and just plain mischief

That Cessna (outside the bottom left hand corner of the lower building, at center) isn't there. Since no one was around to take a picture of his "fly-out," the author digitally inserted the airplane in his overhead shot of a deserted El Toro. Michael Church

El Toro is a Marine Corps Air Station near Irvine, California, with a fabled history—think Helldivers, Wildcats, Phantoms, and Hornets. Created in 1942 out of World War II pressures to train pilots for the South Pacific, the base uprooted the largest lima bean field in North America. The first pilot to use the facility was a Major Carmichael, who made an emergency landing while the base was still under construction. I have the honor to have been the last pilot of a fixed-wing aircraft to take off from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. My ride was more tame: a Cessna 152, and in 2007 the base had a decidedly ragtag appearance.

After the war, El Toro grew into the West Coast’s center of Marine aviation. The base was closed in 1999 and, after years of wrangling over its future, now sits idle, awaiting conversion to a “Great Park” of residences, golf courses, schools, and parkland. Its only tenants are security personnel, parked RVs, and an enterprise that photographs expensive foreign cars.

Although I never flew for any branch of the military, I have a connection to the base. For 15 years, our flight school, Sunrise Aviation, ferried aircraft seven miles from Orange County Airport to participate in the annual Marine Corps airshow at El Toro. Some 400,000 attendees showed up each day to bask in the sun and take in the sights and sounds of a major military spectacle.

The Marines were gracious hosts. On our school’s first visit, our Pitts Special attempted to taxi across the heavy arresting cable used for carrier landing practice. The tailwheel assembly hung up on the cable and the pilot sat helpless on the runway until several Marines in camouflage ran over to lift the airplane clear. I was concerned their enthusiasm might inadvertently cause damage—they’re used to wrestling with  heavier and sturdier machines—but the rescue went smoothly.

On another occasion, we watched as a Navy F-14 pilot arrived late for the static display line and pivoted neatly to position his jet into its parking spot. In the turn, the jet blast caught a line of 10 blue Porta-Potties and tipped them over, occupants and all. In response to a chorus of outraged shouts, camouflaged Marines again sprang to the rescue.

One year a semi-trailer filled with beer was left parked on the shoulder of a taxiway. As the paving softened in the sun, the trailer began to list. The situation developed beyond even the Marines’ resources: As majestic as the Titanic, the trailer slowly succumbed and rolled over, refrigeration unit still pumping, gallons of suds leaking into the California scrub.

El Toro even had a role in the 1996 movie Independence Day, as the base from which F/A-18 pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) departs to bag an alien (“Who’s the man? Huh? WHO’S the man?”) and also served as the point of departure for the flying-wing bomber that nuked the invading Martians in 1953’s War of the Worlds.

Memories like these made me chuckle as I taxied the little Cessna over concrete seams sprouting weeds. Two days earlier, an instructor had made an emergency landing on the base, and we had just persuaded the city government to let us take off from the field after we repaired the airplane. It had been an uphill battle: The city would not grant permission without the Federal Aviation Administration’s blessing, and the FAA wanted nothing to do with any of it (“That’s not an airport, and it’s not our job!”) and recommended the city make us crate up the airplane and truck it out. Only after I suggested that chore might require months did the city acknowledge that El Toro might be an airport after all, if only for 15 minutes.

I maneuvered through a maze of traffic cones laid out by the car-picture folks and eventually found a runway marked with Xs that signaled “no landings allowed.” Within 20 seconds I secured my place in El Toro’s history.

—Michael Church

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.