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Corps Values

El Toro air museum offers ride through the past with planes, photos, simulators and more.

July 16, 1998|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

See two dozen historic fighter planes, helicopters and other machines of destruction before they take off forever!

The bastion of military aviation history known as the Command Museum, and virtually everything else at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, has orders to relocate to San Diego's Miramar base. The museum will stay at least through 1998, though. After a tour, you can enjoy an all-American burger, and soak up more local history, at Knowlwood in Old Town Irvine.

1: MORNING

The Command Museum's historical center, in a World War II squadron aviation building, is where you'll want to end your tour.

Start at Building 244, a hangar opposite the museum entrance. Just inside are photos of flight crews from the 1930s and '40s, a display of flight helmets and a photo of an airplane standing on its nose (with, presumably, the pilot posing nearby). Among several real planes in the hangar are the Shooting Star, introduced in the '40s to help Marine pilots make the transition from prop-driven aircraft to jet fighters. (Some of the planes are still in service.)

Most aircraft on display can be found on each side of the hangar. You can board the C-119F Packet, a cargo, personnel and paratroops transport vehicle. One of the helicopters looks sort of like a cricket.

The small blue-and-orange craft in the museum annex could have popped right out of pop artist Peter Max's imagination but in fact is a Link Trainer, the first flight simulator, dating to the 1930s.

"You do get in it, [and] you do electronically 'fly' the thing," said museum curator Tom O'Hara.

Visitors can't do either, but they can sit in another simulator in the room. A sign cautions that it is not a toy; thousands of buttons and dials in the cockpit include one seemingly harmless switch labeled "engine start."

The museum entry hall is filled with fighter-pilot art with titles such as "Those Clouds Won't Help You Now." In the main gallery, a display called "Where We Started" charts the progress of Western Marine Corps aircraft beginning in 1926. Several display cases are filled with models (about 1/48th scale) illustrating aviation development from the biplanes of World War I through the 1930s, Pearl Harbor and the Korean War to modern fighter jets and helicopters.

In a hallway leading to the museum gift shop is a display of model battleships and carriers, some built to 1/700th scale, created by Sgt. James E. Combs, who died last year.

Inside the shop are Marine Corps and aircraft-themed magnets, prints, hats, pins, puzzles, books, models and license plates. Wooden Marine and Air Force planes with wheels for tykes are $125; Blue Angels patches, once $6, have been reduced to $2.

Driving out, a wrong turn means you get to see the Hummers, the military dog-training area and even a rocket or two. For those of us who never grew up, the best thing of all may be watching, and listening to, today's fighter jets taking off and landing as they still do--for now--at the soon-to-be-closed base.

2: LUNCH

With the money you save on that Blue Angels patch, you can buy the so-called classic Knowlwood burger for $3.49 (one-third-pound patty; a half-pounder is $3.99). Also consider Irish nachos: French fries with cheddar cheese, green onions, bacon bits and ranch dressing.

Knowlwood occupies Old Town Irvine's erstwhile blacksmith shop, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are saddles and farm implements in the rafters. A vintage pickup truck has been converted to a food counter. There are drills and old newspapers on the walls. In its top story of the day, a 1912 copy of the Santa Ana Bulletin tells of the desperado who killed one Bob Squires and wounded three others before being killed by a posse, a skirmish described as "the bloodiest battle in the county's history."

In a small arcade, those still thinking about the Command Museum can try their hand at Aero Fighters.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1: Command Museum

El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Building 243, (949) 726-4380.

10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.

2: Knowlwood

14952 Sand Canyon Ave., Irvine, (949) 857-8927.

6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

Parking: There is free parking in lots at each location.

Buses: OCTA bus No. 673 (Irvine-MCAS El Toro) runs along Sand Canyon Avenue with a stop at Burt Road and through the Marine Corps Air Station.

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