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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Catalysts For Change : Eyes On The Sky

October 16, 1988|KIM MURPHY | Murphy is a Times staff writer.

In Smith's book, Martin tells of the day--three or four months after they set up business--that he approached ranch owner James Irvine Jr. about whether they ought not to be paying rent on the property. "As I went in the door of his office, I noticed a sign over the door with red letters that said, 'Often the best way to show warm sympathy is with cold cash,' " he recalls.

Irvine, as it turned out, had known they were using the field rent-free all along and offered the brothers a five-year lease on 80 acres at $35 a month, increasing $5 a month each year after that.

The business expanded rapidly. Within a few years, the Martins had installed boundary lights along the dirt strip and a 2-million-candlepower beacon light, according to historian Judy Liebeck, who is helping Martin prepare his autobiography. The first hangar, designed by aviator Clarence Prest, was built in 1926.

But with the advent of the Depression, aviation seemed to take the blows earlier than everything else, and Martin soon was $700 behind on his rent. Irvine's response, he recalls, had very little to do with cold cash. He tore up the lease, put Martin back on a $35-a-month flat rent payment and told him to come back when he thought he could pay more.

The hard times didn't last forever; the Martin brothers' financial problems were eased by the extra money they earned flying for airlines.

EDDIE MARTIN AIRPORT quickly became more than just a spot on an aviator's chart. In the late 1920s, Eddie and Johnny bought a specially modified, 155-m.p.h. Nieuport 28 that on weekend afternoons wowed spectators from all over Southern California when Eddie stepped into the cockpit and put the plane through its paces. And Charles Lindbergh stopped off there one morning in 1928 looking for another field in what was to become Midway City.

Pioneer Navy flier Tommy Tomlinson recalled in a 1979 interview the night in 1927 he'd flown in for a party at Eddie Martin Airport. It was the same day Lindbergh had landed in Paris, and everybody had had a drink or two by evening's end. "When the news came through, I grabbed the girl I was with and we took off to celebrate. I wound up circling around the old clock tower (in downtown Santa Ana) because it seemed like the thing to do at the time," Tomlinson recalls.

"Eddie came tearing across the field in a car as we landed and told me, 'Get rid of that gal and take my car and get out of here.' Then Eddie jumped in the plane and taxied it over behind a hangar and hid it in the dark." When the police arrived, Martin played dumb and pointed toward Newport Beach.

"They were madder than all heck," Martin says, "but they believed me and jumped back into their cars and tore off for the beach."

Within a few years, Johnny was flying for the airlines full time, and Eddie had done stints as a pilot for Western Air Express (predecessor of Western Airlines), American Airlines and MacMillan Petroleum Corp. and as a test pilot for Lockheed Corp. Younger brother Floyd Martin kept the airport running during those days.

By 1939, however, the Orange County Board of Supervisors had plans for the land occupied by Eddie Martin Airport: They wanted to extend Main Street to the south--through the airport--to Corona del Mar. Eventually, the county worked out a land exchange with the Irvine Co. to build a new airport about a mile from the Martin operation on former Irvine Co. land. The county also agreed to grant Floyd Martin and his partner Joe Hager an exclusive lease to operate the new county airport for 17 years in exchange for the right of way across the Irvine Co. land occupied by Eddie Martin Airport.

They agreed and moved Martin Aviation to the new county airport--a business that still flourishes there and at two other locations. By 1941, the Board of Supervisors had completed a $7,500 construction project that included a 2,500-foot paved runway and taxiway and, somewhat later, an administration building--all early hallmarks of the massive growth in aviation that was to come with the county's emergence as an urban center.

Since then, the county airport, which was named John Wayne Airport for the county resident after his death in 1979, has undergone another major expansion and is in the midst of a third--a $296.6-million terminal and parking construction project designed to accommodate 8.4 million passengers a year. Aerobatic biplanes fight for runway space alongside jet airliners.

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