It started out as bean fields and orange groves in the warm climate of Irvine Ranch, but with the out break of a Second World War, the need for a wartime base called for the purchase of 2,319 acres of land by the US Marines. While crops will still being harvested, construction began on what would be known as the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in 1942 and the first squadrons arrived on the base in early 1943. MCAS 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." Expanding 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 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets including the famous VMFA-314 "Black Knights" squadron that's been depicted in many movies including the cult sci-fi hit 'Independence Day' starring Will Smith who portrayed a VMFA-314 pilot. Unfortunately, the MCAS El Toro's fate was decided in 1993 when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided to relocate MCAS El Toro and MCAS Tustin's Marine squadrons and resources to MCAS Miramar down in San Diego with both bases formally closed in July of 1999.
After the Marines had vacated the base, a great debate sparked over how to use the land. The idea of using the existing MCAS El Toro facilities to create an international Airport to help relieve the ever growing Santa Ana Airport (more commonly known as John Wayne Airport) was brought to the Department of Defense, but the local communities surrounding El Toro came together to form a large force which ended up getting the idea defeated in the voter polls. The land was then put up for auction, and bought by a developer company to redevelop the base for residential, commercial, education, and golf related facilities. Part of the deal, however, meant that over 1,300 acres of land and $200 Million dollars would be put towards a 'Great Park' where the history of not only MCAS El Toro but Orange County could be presented through a series of attractions, museums, and facilities. The first addition to the Great Park was a giant orange colored helium field balloon which anyone could ride for free while the Great Park is open. As the park continued to grow at a slow pace and the historical military collections increased, it was clear it was time to put something together as a tribute not only to El Toro, but the heritage of Orange County. It was that need that started the Great Park Anniversary Celebrations which where at first only small events showcasing the Great Park and what had been built at the time along with what military aircraft had been donated towards the Great Park Museum. In 2009, the addition of a performance by the Silver Wings Wingwalking team brought a new term to the event, an Airshow.
The Great Park Celebrations continued in 2010, but with an even bigger leap for the now growing Airshow: select aerobatic and military aircraft were able to land on one of the runways on the former base and take off performing an impressive line-up of acts and demonstrations for such a small event. Grown beyond just the Wingwalking team, now professional aerobatic performers and vintage military Warbirds filled the air in a joint Airshow and Celebration of the Great Park. Murmurs of an El Toro Airshow swept across Orange County like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Disbelief accompanied curious questions as most had no idea of the event nor that aircraft could land or perform on the base. While the show was quite small in Airshow standards, it was for certain that the event was growing in fame and had a future, especially with the amount of people that showed up for the event and packed the smaller parking areas on the former taxi ways of the base. The goal for the next year was simple, bigger and better with more aircraft and acts to make the MCAS El Toro/Great Park Airshow and Celebration into something big. While the Airshow had gotten much bigger, the event still centered on the Great Park itself, and the anniversary of its creation. The aviation performances were an addition, and just part of the lineup of festivities for the one day event. Still, the amount of people that walked out to the runway section of the event to watch the aircraft made it one of the most popular events of the day.
You can check out photos from the 2010 MCAS El Toro / Great Park Airshow located here.
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