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EL TORO AIR SHOW : HOME OF THE HORNETS : F/A-18 Hornet pilots are the sting in the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing's mission to support troops. El Toro is the Hornet's base and the wing's HQ.

April 25, 1991|GEORGE FRANK and DANNY SULLIVAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EL TORO — Since the daily television and newspaper coverage of the Persian Gulf War, the Orange County residents who live under the flight paths of military jets and helicopters may now have a better understanding of why Marine aircraft train overhead.

Eight thousand Marines and hundreds of aircraft based at El Toro and Tustin saw action in the Persian Gulf. F/A-18 jets from El Toro played a major role in bombing targets in Kuwait and Iraq, while helicopters from Tustin moved Marines and their supplies into Kuwait when the ground war started in late February. Those same helicopters--CH-53s and CH-46s--transported thousands of Iraqi prisoners from Kuwait to camps in Saudi Arabia.

Training pilots for war is the primary purpose of the two Orange County Marine bases. Pilots fly planes and helicopters from one air station to another to train. Aircraft fly to desert bombing ranges or on aircraft carriers at sea. Over the years, the military has increased its nighttime training for both fighter jets and helicopters.

According to military officials, the locations of the four Southern California Marine bases--El Toro, Tustin, Camp Pendleton and the training center at Twentynine Palms--were selected with training in mind. Helicopters from Tustin and F/A-18s from El Toro go to nearby Camp Pendleton or to the Marine Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County to practice maneuvers with ground troops.

The sprawling 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is the headquarters for the 3rd Aircraft Wing, with its 16,000 Marines and 450 aircraft spread over four bases in California and Arizona. The wing air stations, besides those at El Toro and Tustin, are located at Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County and in Yuma, Ariz.

Bordered on three sides by the city of Irvine, El Toro has six F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet squadrons and a dozen large C-130s, whose main mission is aerial refueling.

The home of 125 transport helicopters, nearby Tustin is one of two primary Marine chopper bases in the United States. The Tustin base made headlines earlier this month when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced his intention to shut down the air station and send the Marines and their helicopters to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms.

Although the recommendation came as a surprise to many local military and community leaders, it was accepted with little or no criticism. It was one of 30 bases that Cheney wants closed because of a shrinking military force and a declining military budget. Officials predicted it would take up to six years to move the base. The 1,600 acres that the facility sits on are valued at $500 million.

Tustin opened in 1942 as a blimp base and was closed in 1949 but reopened two years later because of the Korean War. It then became the home for the growing number of Marine helicopters.

Like Tustin, El Toro now is surrounded by tens of thousands of neighbors living in tightly packed housing developments. Busy freeways, high-rise buildings, shopping centers and industrial parks border the airfield, located at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains.

In 1943, when it opened, only bean fields and orange groves separated the base from the little town of El Toro, two miles away, and Santa Ana, 15 miles away.

During its early years, the air station was used exclusively to train pilots for combat in the Pacific. Before the end of World War II, the Marines purchased an additional 1,400 acres and extended the runways for the newer F-4F Wildcats and F-4U Corsairs. At the end of the war it appeared that Congress would phase out the facility because it was no longer needed.

But before that happened, 50,000 enemy troops crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea. El Toro's Marine Fighter Squadron 311, flying the Grumman Cougar, was the first Marine aviation squadron to arrive in Korea.

In 1955, the 3rd Aircraft Wing, with its four aircraft groups, moved from Miami to El Toro. Maj. Gen. Royal N. Moore Jr., who just returned from the Persian Gulf, is the current commander of the aircraft wing.

During the Vietnam conflict, the base prepared and sent Marine RF-4B Phantoms, A-4 Skyhawks and A-6 Intruders to Southeast Asia.

Since its early days, the air station has grown into a small city, with 8,250 Marines and civilian employees and nearly 1,200 homes and 3,000 Marines living in barracks. The base has about 60 aircraft, most of them sleek F/A-18 Hornets, and all the support equipment to maintain the supersonic fighters. Within its fences, El Toro has a gymnasium, library, chapel, post office, bowling alley, a fast-food outlet, an officers and enlisted persons club, an exchange and a commissary.

The air station, run by Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, has twice been awarded the Commander-in-Chief's Award for Excellence.

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