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Sun Is Setting on Tustin Air Base, Ending 50 Years of Military Use

November 11, 1998|RAY TESSLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUSTIN — In these immense caverns 18-stories high and three football fields long, a half-century of American naval air power--from the fat, sausage blimps of World War II to the heavy helicopters of Vietnam and Desert Storm--awaited the country's call.

Now, the two huge hangars at Tustin Marine Corps Air Station are empty and eerily silent, except for the family of finches warbling up in the wooden rafters. Outside, the runways are barren and the once-bustling military base is being taken over by a new population: hawks circle overhead, preparing to dive-bomb ground squirrels, and thin coyotes furtively cross the nearby field, pausing to nervously look behind.

Only 92 Marines are left to rattle around the 1,561-acre site. These days, Tustin is headed toward the scrapheap along with 96 surplus military bases throughout the nation, 24 of them in California, more than any other state.

Most of Tustin's buildings are closed and latched, and the very last helicopter, a Super Stallion, is being prepared to fly out later this month, symbolically consigning the air station to history.

Once, 3,000 Marines tending 144 helicopters carried on their duties here when the station was an important training site for helicopter crews headed for duty in the western Pacific.

The base's two huge hangars--1,088 feet long, 178 feet high and 297 feet wide--are considered the world's largest unsupported structures. Tustin is pondering demolishing the south hangar as part of a redevelopment plan, but city officials are reviewing the structure's historic significance. The other hangar is likely to be preserved. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While nearby El Toro Marine Air Station receives most of the local attention because of a controversial plan to convert it to an international airport when it's retired, Tustin is quietly fading away.

Only a forlorn few are left to keep the base secured until the flag is lowered for the last time next June and the facility is officially turned over to the city of Tustin for probable redevelopment as a commercial-industrial park.

"It's real lonely," said Lance Corp. Phillip Brooks, a military policeman who rotates between guarding the gates and patrolling the base's abandoned buildings and housing areas. "We could call it a 'ghost base.' It's like tumbleweeds should be blowing just in front of the hangars."

At the helicopter facilities, Maj. Ron Colyer, a Marine for 17 years, is tying up loose ends and preparing to move out. Wearing a flight jumpsuit, he is getting the last helicopter--a transport and troop carrying craft--ready to leave.

"A lot of guys started their Marine Corps flying career out here," he said, eyes scanning the motionless horizon. "This is definitely closing a chapter in Marine aviation history.'

That history began in 1942, when Orange County was mostly small towns and open fields and the Navy needed land for a blimp base to patrol the Southern California coast for enemy submarines.

It became a Marine helicopter facility in 1951 and in later years played a key role in developing helicopter equipment and tactics.

Even now, in the twilight of its days, Tustin still must be run by military rules and discipline, and that's largely the job of Master Sgt. Mervyn Best, the senior enlisted man remaining at this tiny outpost of the 174,000-member Marine Corps.

Promptly at 5 p.m., Best stops by the flagpole. Right on cue, a tape recording plays "evening colors" and two Marines march out and solemnly lower the banner. At this instant, all Marines outdoors stand and salute Old Glory. Passing vehicles are expected to stop for the ritual.

This day, there are only two cars.

Maj. Richard McKenzie, Tustin's officer in charge, said: "We're sorry to see this part of the book close. We're trying to leave this community with grace and dignity."

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