EL TORO — When it started 41 years ago, Harry S Truman was President and there were more orange trees than people in Orange County.
Television was new--few people had sets in May, 1950. And just five years after the end of World War II, people were still fascinated with military aviation--especially the then-new jet planes.
Against that backdrop, the El Toro Air Show was born.
The first of what would become a popular annual air show was announced in the May 19, 1950, edition of the Flight Jacket, the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station's base newspaper. Said the Flight Jacket: "Tomorrow afternoon El Toro is expected to host 15,000 visitors in its and the nation's first Armed Forces Day."
The idea behind Armed Forces Day was to invite civilians to visit military bases. At El Toro, it was an immediate hit with Orange County residents. They flocked to the first show and they have continued to pour through the gates in ever-growing numbers.
The El Toro Air Show this year is expected to attract more than 1 million people. Spiraling attendance over the years has reflected population growth in Orange County itself. In 1950, the county only had 216,224 residents; by contrast, the 1990 U.S. census showed Orange County had zoomed to 2,410,556 residents.
The May 20, 1950, show featured "simulated practice carrier landings" by F4U Corsair planes. An R5D Douglas Skymaster cargo plane flew over the landing strip and parachuted some cargo. A cluster of the latest jet aircraft also flew over the field in formation.
By today's standards, such an show is pretty ho-hum stuff. But in 1950, the event got boffo reviews from the visiting public. In its post-show edition, the base newspaper displayed photos of throngs of civilians swarming the airstrip.
"They came in thousands," the 1950 paper said. "They gasped during an air show by some of the best Leatherneck pilots. . . . They gaped with the inherent inquisitiveness of those seeing an F94 Panther jet for the first time."
In 1951, attendance at the air show jumped to 17,500. Part of the increased interest, military officials said, was because war had broken out. North Korea had invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and the United States was leading a United Nations effort to repel the North Koreans. The "Korean conflict," as it was then called, was still going on when planes took to the air over El Toro for the base's second show. Those attending that year included many from Los Angeles, including Hollywood star Alexis Smith.
While the El Toro shows have been associated with the base's annual Armed Forces Day celebration, they have also traditionally benefited the Navy Relief Society, a group that aids service members and their families during financial emergencies.
During the early years of the show, it was a one-day event. In recent years, however, it has been expanded to fill an entire weekend. Also in recent years, the Navy's Blue Angels flight team has been the featured attraction and has become synonymous with the show and been credited with the skyrocketing attendance (by 1980, a crowd estimated at 260,000 attended, growing to an estimated 810,000 last year).
Tragedy has also visited the El Toro show. On April 27, 1985, a civilian pilot, M. R. Gossman, 55, and his passenger, Navy Hospitalman Robert G. Arrowsmith, 25, died when Gossman's small, privately owned AT-6 plane hit power lines and plunged into an empty chapel on the base.
A second crash occurred April 25, 1988. Marine Col. Jerry Cadick, 45, suffered serious internal injuries but survived after his F/A-18 Hornet crashed as thousands watched. The jet struck a runway on the base after coming out of an aerial loop.
Through the years, the El Toro Air Show has focused residents' attention on the dynamic changes in aviation, and when the Blue Angels come to town, virtually everybody is an airplane buff, said Vi Smith, author of "From Jennies to Jets--The Aviation History of Orange County."
"I think the most important thing the air show done is to allow people in Orange County to see aviation firsthand. It lets them know that aviation is an industry, and something to treasure," Smith said. "The Blue Angels, I think, have kept alive the tradition of aviation heroes."
So many people have attended the show each year that the Marine base now calls it "The Biggest Free Show in Southern California."
And the show goes on, with a prediction that it will break all previous attendance records this year.
"The quality of performers we bring aboard--that's one reason the show is such a success," said Capt. Betsy Sweatt, public affairs officer at El Toro. "It's just an overall good weekend. A place for families to have a good, free show.
"I think this year the crowd will be bigger than ever because of the increase in attention the armed forces have received because of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Particularly the people in Orange County. They've just been tremendous in showing their support."