El Toro Station

Marine Corps Air Station El Toro

Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was a United States Marine Corps Air Station located near Irvine, California, at .

Before it was decommissioned in 1999, it was the home of Marine Corps aviation on the West Coast. Designated as a Master Jet Station, its four runways (two of and two of 10,000 feet) could handle the largest aircraft in the U.S. military inventory. All U.S. Presidents in the post-WWII era have landed in Air Force One at this airfield. The El Toro "Flying Bull" patch was designed by Walt Disney Studios in 1944. It survived virtually unchanged until the close of the Air Station.


In May 1942, Lieutenant Colonel William Fox was directed to select the sites for all of the Marine Corps' West Coast air stations. Fox sought the most expeditious and low cost option and thus chose the already existing airports of El Centro, Mojave and Santa Barbara. For the fourth station he chose land that had previously been looked at by the Navy for a blimp base. Construction of MCAS El Toro began on August 3, 1942 on land previously owned by the Irvine Company. The company greatly resisted the station's construction at this site, which at the time contained the largest lima bean field in North America, which was the company's prime source of revenue.. The name El Toro came from the nearby small community which in 1940 only had a population of 130 people.

The base headquarters was established on November 4, 1942 and the first landing occurred in late November when a Major Micheal Carmichael, flying from Camp Kearney, was forced to make an emergency landing amongst the construction equipment. January 1943 saw the first operational units arriving at MCAS El Toro. First aboard were Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group 41 and VMF-113. They were followed later in the month by VMF-224, VMSB-231 and VMSB-232 who were returning from fighting during the Battle of Guadalcanal in order to re-organize, re-equip and train. Soon after its opening El Toro was handling the largest tactical aerodrome traffic on the Pacific Coast

Already the largest Marine air station on the West Coast, in 1944, funds were approved to double its size and operations. By the end of 1944, the base would be home to 1,248 officers and 6,831 enlisted personnel.

In 1950, El Toro was selected as a permanent Master Jet Station for the Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific. To support this new role, the aviation infrastructure at El Toro was again expanded significantly. For most of the ensuing years, El Toro served as the primary base for Marine Corps west coast fighter squadrons. In 1958, Marine Corps Air Station Miami was closed which brought the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to El Toro

In 1993, MCAS El Toro was designated for closing by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission and all of its activities were to be transferred to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The station officially closed on July 2, 1999 .

Base conversion controversy

The closing of MCAS El Toro ignited a political firestorm over the eventual fate of the facility. With its existing infrastructure, some favored converting the base into an international airport. Those favoring the new airport tended to come from northern Orange County, (desiring the convenience of a closer airport), and from areas in Newport Beach that are within the arrival and departure noise zones surrounding John Wayne Airport, (hoping to close that airport in favor of the new one at El Toro).

Those against the airport proposal were largely residents of the cities in the immediate vicinity of El Toro, such as Irvine, Lake Forest, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Dana Point, and Mission Viejo, where residents were alarmed at the idea of the aircraft noise. The cities opposed to the airport created a joint powers authority, the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority (ETRPA) to oppose the project. They were joined in the effort by grass-roots organizations that collected record numbers of signatures on petitions to place anti-airport initiatives on the ballot and raised funds for the election campaigns. The volunteer-run El Toro Info Site was the Internet voice of the movement and one of the first political blogs.

This faction lobbied strongly in favor of other uses for the property. The city of Irvine sought to annex the property for park and related uses.

The battle between pro-airport and anti-airport groups dominated Orange County politics for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Airport proposals were defeated in two hotly-contested ballot initiatives, and further challenges took place in the courts. Eventually the airport opponents prevailed, and in March 2002, the Department of Defense announced that it would sell the land to private interests to be developed into Orange County Great Park.

Also involved in the land property debate is the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians sought the retrieval of the former air base, which they claimed was an Indian Rancheria of the tribe until the 1930's when the land was sold to the US government.

Environmental remediation

Before the site could be developed for civilian use, the Department of the Navy (which oversees both the Navy and the Marine Corps) was required to perform environmental remediation to clean up contaminated soil on the site. The contamination was caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs), primarily industrial solvents that had been used over the years for purposes such as degreasing, paint stripping, and the cleaning of aircraft.

Over the years, the VOCs had seeped into the groundwater, resulting in a plume of contaminated groundwater extending for three miles (5 km) to the west of the station. In July 2005, the Department of the Navy's Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Program Management Office (PMO) issued a public notice stating that the cleanup of the contaminated soil was complete. The cleanup of the groundwater is being handled by the Irvine Desalter Project, a project of two local water authorities that has financial backing from the Navy and the State of California.

Sale of the base

The Department of the Navy hired the General Services Administration and Los Angeles-based Colliers International to assist in the sale of MCAS El Toro. Colliers branded the project as Heritage Fields combining the long standing history of the base and what the future of the base will be to the community and the generations to come. An online auction was conducted and in February 2005, the final bid of $650 million was accepted for the four parcels of land comprising the former MCAS El Toro. The winning bidder was Heritage Fields LLC, a joint venture between developer Lennar Corporation and several other firms. Development plans for the 3724 acre (5.8 sq mi, 15 km²) site include residential, golf, commercial, R&D, and schools. 1375 acres (2.15 sq mi, 5.5 km²) of the site will be dedicated to the Great Park. A ceremony to formally transfer ownership of the property to Heritage Fields LLC was held on August 29, 2005.

The Legacy Project

In 2002, six photographers started The Legacy Project, a non-profit group dedicated to documenting the transformation of the shuttered and abandoned MCAS El Toro into Orange County Great Park. According to published news reports, they have already taken over 80,000 photographs.

As an important part of the project, on June 14, 2006, the six photographers, (Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson, Douglas McCulloh, and Clayton Spada), along with many volunteer workers, transformed a hangar (Building #115) into a gigantic pinhole camera in order to record a picture of the base on to a huge photographic print. It is expected that the Guinness World Records book will categorize and certify that the hangar is the world's largest camera. Details of how the picture was made are provided at the Pinhole camera article.

The hangar/camera will eventually be torn down, so the photographers jokingly state that they also made the world's largest disposable camera.

Other facts

  • The MCAS El Toro Air Show took place annually from the 1950s until 1997. It featured the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, as well as the USAF Thunderbirds. It also featured new aircraft that were coming into active service, such as the B-2 stealth bomber. Other displays featured military vehicles. The show also had a large gathering of vendors of military items and memorabilia. The final show in 1997 drew an estimated two million visitors.
  • El Toro was twice the final stop for former President Richard Nixon, first when he landed there upon resigning the White House in 1974, and again after his death in 1994 when his body was flown to California for burial. He flew both times in his Air Force One, SAM 27000.
  • On April 24, 1988, Marine Corps Colonel Jerry Cadick, then commanding officer of MAG-11, was performing stunts at the MCAS El Toro Air Show before a crowd of 300,000 when he crashed his F/A-18 Hornet at the bottom of a loop that was too close to the ground. The aircraft was in a nose-high attitude, but still carrying too much energy toward the ground when it impacted at more than . Col. Cadick was subjected to extremely high G forces that resulted in his face making contact with the control stick and sustaining serious injury. He broke his arm, elbow and ribs, exploded a vertebra and collapsed a lung. Col. Cadick survived and retired from the Marine Corps. The F/A-18 remained largely intact but was beyond repair.
  • On June 25, 1965, a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-135A bound for Okinawa crashed on takeoff, killing all 85 on board. After attaining an altitude of , the plane failed to make a left turn and flew into rising terrain. Cause unknown.
  • From July to September 1957, and from December 1958 to the spring of 1959, Lee Harvey Oswald was assigned to El Toro in the same radar operator unit as Kerry Wendell Thornley
  • Lexus used the large unused strips of paved runways for their test-drive event called the "Taste of Lexus" on September 16, 2006.
  • The "Los Angeles" Registration and Polling Centre Location for the January 28-30, 2005 Iraq Out-of-Country Voting Program

In Popular Culture

  • The 1986 television movie, The B.R.A.T. Patrol, starring Sean Astin and Nia Long, was filmed at El Toro however in the movie the base was referred to as Marine Corps Air Station El Diablo.
  • The Marines from El Toro were featured in the 1953 film The War of the Worlds.
  • In the science fiction film Independence Day (1996), Will Smith played a Marine Corps pilot from VMFA-314, Captain Steven Hiller, stationed at El Toro. In the movie, the base was completely devastated in an alien attack, and later became a congregation point for refugees from a devastated Los Angeles.
  • The television series 24 was scheduled to film at El Toro but it was cancelled due to the October 2007 California Wild Fires.
  • The upcoming American version of Top Gear (current format) will be filmed at El Toro.

See also




  • De Chant, John A. Devilbirds: The Story of United States Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Harper and Brothers Publishers.
  • Rottman, Gordon L. U.S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle - Ground and Air Units in the Pacific War, 1939 - 1945. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
  • Sherrod, Robert (1952). History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Combat Forces Press.
  • Shettle Jr., M. L. United States Marine Corps Air Stations of World War II. Bowersville, Georgia: Schaertel Publishing Co..
  • Kranser, Leonard Internet for Activists - A hands-on guide to Internet tactics field-tested in the fight against building El Toro Airport. Dana Point, CA: iUniverse. Web
  • El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. GlobalSecurity.org. .

External links


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