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El Toro Jets Make Fly-Down to New Home : Military: Ceremony in San Diego greets 24 FA-18 Hornets. Flights signal the beginning of the end for South County Marine base and represent first of hundreds of aircraft to be sent to Miramar by 1999.

August 25, 1994|H.G. REZA and LEN HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — In a ceremony that appears to signal the beginning of the end for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, 24 Marine jets touched down Wednesday at their new home at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, welcomed in a traditional Navy piping-aboard rite.

The FA-18 Hornets passed in a ceremonial fly-by at 2:55 p.m., in view of a small crowd of dignitaries invited to witness the Marines' arrival. Under a blue, cloudless sky, breaking to the left one at a time before doing a lazy half-circle and setting down on the runway, the steel-gray aircraft flew in formation in groups of four.

After each plane had landed, they lined up single file and taxied to a stop in front of the dignitaries, which included Navy and Marine flag officers and local politicians who sat under a blue- and white-striped awning.

The contingent of FA-18 attack aircraft represents the first of several hundred jets and helicopters that will be transferred from El Toro to Miramar by 1999, when the Marine base is scheduled to close and the Marines will assume control of the San Diego base from the Navy.

The transfer has all but dashed the hopes of those in Orange County who were counting on a last-minute reprieve from the Pentagon to keep El Toro open.

For two years, private citizens and politicians alike have been lobbying the Pentagon, citing studies and reports suggesting that it would be more expensive to close El Toro than to keep it open.

But Wednesday's event indicated that the Pentagon has not been swayed by the pleas from El Toro supporters. The pilots who landed the Hornets Wednesday will be followed by 410 active-duty Marines and 470 reservists whose jobs will be transferred to San Diego in the next few weeks.

If nothing else, Wednesday's pomp proved that one community's loss is another's gain.

"We can't tell you how pleased we are that you were able to send in the Marines," said San Diego City Councilwoman Judy McCarty, in a reference to an effort by local developer Doug Manchester, who wants to turn Miramar into a commercial airport if the military ever leaves.

McCarty, who opposes a commercial airport at Miramar, said the arrival of the Marines assures that the base will remain a military airport well into the next century, after the Navy moves its planes to bases in Northern California and Nevada.

The Marines, too, saw the significance of Wednesday's event.

Earlier in the day at El Toro, an Orange County landmark and strategic military airport since World War II, Marine Maj. Charlie Walsh climbed aboard his FA-18 and took his symbolic place in Orange County and Marine Corps lore.

"This is a piece of American history coming to an end," said Walsh, 42. A 16-year Marine Corps veteran stationed at El Toro the past three years, Walsh is the executive officer of VMFA-121, the "Green Knights."

"An awful lot of world events have been supported from this place--World War II, Vietnam, the pilots from El Toro played a major role in Desert Storm and the Gulf War," he said.

At the same time, Walsh said, "We are really just moving to another base. For a Marine, that's nothing new."

When the Pentagon in 1993 announced plans to close El Toro and move the Marines to Miramar, a dispute quickly arose between the two branches of service. Senior Marine and Navy officers squabbled over who was going to use certain facilities once the Marines arrived.

On Wednesday, both sides sought to put the disputes behind them and toast a spirit of cooperation for the future.

Vice Adm. Robert J. Spane, commander of all Naval air forces in the Pacific, welcomed Marine Maj. Gen. P. Drax Williams, commander of the El Toro base and all Marine Corps air bases in the West. "Welcome aboard, and let's get on" with the mission, Spane said.

Although the departure of the squadron from El Toro was not open to the public, a handful of spectators were on hand, including LaVerne Bruce of south Laguna Beach.

"It's sad," Bruce said as the planes departed. "For those of us who love aviation, it's a loss. I think it's symbolic. Many people in this area have devoted their lives to aviation."

Unlike the situation at Miramar, the future of the El Toro base is less certain. A group of Orange County businessmen led by developer George Argyros succeeded in placing a binding measure on the November ballot, which, if passed by voters, would require the county to build a commercial airport at El Toro when the Marines leave.

Opponents of the measure, which include leaders of most South County cities with close ties to the Marine base, have promised a court battle to kill the initiative.

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