Musings of an Aviation Photographer

Airshows, Aircraft, Photography, and more…
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Silver Wings Wingwalker TeamWhen I first heard about the Airshow taking place at the former MCAS El Toro base in Irvine, California, naturally it really peaked my interest.  Having grown up next to the former home of the Third Marine Air Wing, I was beyond excited to not only be able to step foot on the base once again, one of the first times since the 1997 last El Toro Airshows, but to also see aircraft flying over the base.  I used to fall asleep to the sounds of F/A-18A Hornets taking to the skies on night missions, and since the base closed finally in 1999 and was sold to a Miami developer and renamed into the ‘Great Park of Irvine,’ a silence has fallen over the area as those fighter jet engines have all left and been relocated to MCAS Miramar down in San Diego, California.  I miss the days of driving pass the base and seeing a sea of F/A-18 Hornets sitting out in front of the Sharpshooter’s Squadron hangar.

MCAS El Toro was purchased by the Marines in 1942 by James Irvine Sr for a $100,000 to be converted into an airfield and blimp base.  Construction began in August of 1942 and in early 1943 the Marine air units arrived at the base to be stationed there.  El Toro became one of the biggest air hubs on the Pacific Coast hosting many squadrons of marine aircraft including the famous “Whistling Devils” and “Red Devils.” MCAS El Toro circa 1993Expanding even larger in 1944 when it became the largest Marine Air Corps station on the west coast, after the introduction of Jet Fighters to the base it doubled in sized again in 1950 when it was selected to become the permanent master Jet Station for the Fleet Marine Forces operating in the Pacific. In 1958 when MCAS Miami was closed, the Third Marine Air Wing was transferred over to MCAS El Toro, and the base became the primary location for all West Coast Marine Aircraft Squadrons. The base was one of the first to receive active squadrons of then McDonnell Douglas and now Boeing F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets including the famous VMFA-314 “Black Knights” squadron that’s been depicted in many movies. The end of the base came about in 1993 when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided to relocated El Toro’s squadrons and resources to MCAS Miramar down in San Diego, and the base was formally closed in July of 1999.

After the base was closed, the massive expanse went on public auction sale, and a Miami developer bought up the land with plans for a massive redevelopment that would include a huge park,The Great Park Hot Air Balloon museums honoring the former El Toro base, golf course, residential area, and much more.  Renamed as the ‘Great Park’ in Irvine, the first sign of progress was a large orange tethered hot air balloon that was installed permanently on one corner of the base.  The plans went through several changes and redesigns, but the recession has caused all progress to slow to a crawl as the former base rots away day by day.  Several various events have taken place on the base, and a few colleges use some of the redone buildings on the case for off-campus classes, but the main structures such as the tower, hangars, and even the runways remain intact as of 2010 though heavily falling apart

The city of Irvine and the developers of the Great Park hold a yearly tribute to the old days of the MCAS El Toro Airshows with a special open house mini-airshow event with vintage military aircraft, aerobatics, wing walkers and more along with many displays of military hardware including modern vehicles brought in by the Marines from Camp Pendleton.  With various sections of the show area dedicated to different themes, the mini-airshow offers activities for the kids with a large play area, live bands, small booth vendors, rides on the hot air balloon, and more.

Panorama of the MCAS El Toro/Great Park Airshow Crowd

It was a blast being back on base again, remembering the good ole times of the MCAS El Toro Airshow.  While I miss the sounds of jet fighter aircraft roaring overhead, it was very fun to see vintage aircraft flying above El Toro and hearing the sounds of aerobatic aircraft as they spun around in the air.  SNJ-5 Texan Starting the aerial displays, the ‘Just In Time’ Skydivers dropped in from a vintage cargo craft wowing the crowds and bringing in the American Flag to open the show.  Next up was the vintage North American SNJ-5 Texan named ‘War Dog’ flown by master pilot John Collver which took to the skies performing his aerobatic demonstration routine of the World War 2 era military trainer aircraft.  One fun bit to note is that ‘War Dog’ actually served at MCAS El Toro during World War 2 and current wears the markings it wore while stationed at the base, so it was a wonderful joy to see her back home.  The Silver Wings Wing-Walking team put on a wonderful display inspired by the classic days of Barnstorming in early Boeing PT-17 Stearman aircraft after the Texan. A regular welcomed sight at Airshows all around Southern California, wing walker Margaret Stivers and her pilot Hartley Folstad always amaze the crowd with flow flying and a ballet of skill by Margaret all over their Stearman.  After their departure back home, the two main event aircraft started up with a mighty roar as the Grumman F6F-5N Hellcat and Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero operated by the Commemorative Air Force taxied out from their display location and took to the skies.  What followed was a wonderful display of dogfighting aerobatics of the two World War 2 fighters of the Pacific Theater, with the Hellcat eventually having the edge on the Zero and taking ‘out’ the Zero with a long stream of white smoke.  Grumman F6F-5N Hellcat and Mitsubishi A6M2 ZeroAfter their dogfight, the two fighters joined up together for two wonderful passes in formation night and tight and close to the crowd.  Finally, the last act of the day was from Doug Jardine and his Sukhoi 26MX trainer.  Showing off some incredible high-G maneuvers that pressed him deep into his seat, Doug displayed the full capabilities of the Sukhoi through wild twists, slides, and controlled falls.  Because of the late start of the Airshow at 3pm, the flying was soon over and the night activities began featuring more music from various bands and the final grand finale event of the night with a laser and music show.

While the show itself was one of the tiniest airshows I’ve been to yet, it’s size was offset by all the memories that came in a rush from all the fun El Toro Airshows throughout all my earlier life.  Only in it’s second or third year, I have no doubt this airshow will continue to grow as long as the base’s fate in limbo with the current recession.  Once the developing starts on the overall base, the runways will soon be torn out and it may be more difficult to hold an event of this style when aircraft will need to be flown in from other airport locations to perform and then be forced to head home to land. It’s because of this and the false hope I have of the base returning to it’s former glory that I welcome this unscheduled pause of the future of MCAS El Toro.

For the complete gallery of images from the July 2010 MCAS El Toro/Great Park of Irvine Airshow, click here.

Former MCAS El Toro Hangar

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