After a false start, the county's age of aviation sputtered to life in a bean field. Before long, the setting of flight records seemed commonplace.
A group of spectators had gathered at McFadden's pasture shortly before dawn, their eyes fixed on a gawky construction of spruce spars, curved bamboo ribs and neatly stitched white muslin. The ungainly structure had been painstakingly pieced together over a year's time, and on this late summer morning just a few years after the Wright Brothers first sailed over Kitty Hawk, N.C., it was about to tuck the early morning breezes up under its wings and give California its first glimpse of mechanical flight.
At least, that was Glenn Martin's plan. The young Santa Ana automobile dealer and mechanic had put every dime and spare moment he had into a machine he hoped would launch him heavenward by the seat of the pants. It nearly did.
As the crowd--including mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner--looked on, Martin climbed onto a seat suspended over the landing gear and made a few tentative ground runs across the pasture, gaining a feel for the controls. The fourth time across, the engine sputtered to a halt, and, rather than wait for his mechanics to restart it, Martin climbed off and gave the propeller a spin. Before he could climb back on, the engine roared to life and began pulling the pilotless craft across the field. The propeller sliced through Martin's jaunty bowler hat as he grabbed hold of a strut and rode the plane like a bronco through a series of dizzying circles across the pasture. Finally, a wheel collapsed, and the plane's delicate framework crunched into a heap on the ground. The engine, having torn itself from its mounting, roared and sputtered a moment more and then stopped.
Martin's biographer, Henry Still, reports that the would-be airman hauled the wreckage out of the pasture at sunup the next day, tailed by giggling children who tore off scraps of wing fabric along the way.
His revenge came on Aug. 1, 1909, when Martin donned a new bowler and stepped into the biplane he had built in the abandoned Southern Methodist Church in Santa Ana. This time, the runway was a 160-acre Irvine Ranch lima bean field. Martin lifted the craft eight feet into the air and flew 100 feet to become Orange County's--possibly California's--first successful aviator.
"We did it," he was quoted as saying in Still's book, "To Ride the Wind." "Now I'm going home and sleep for about 20 hours."
The flight was one of many that would give Orange County a special place in aviation history. With its wide-open fields, proximity to Los Angeles and bustling cadre of flying enthusiasts, Orange County quickly sprouted nearly three dozen airstrips and played host to many of the luminaries of the earliest years of human flight.
It was here that, a few years later, Martin would again make history with the longest over-water flight, taking off from Newport Harbor at Balboa and landing at Catalina's Avalon Harbor. It was in those same fields south of Santa Ana that reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes would make an inglorious belly-flop landing while attempting to set a new world speed record.
It was in Orange County that well-known Hollywood stunt fliers Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz would set up their headquarters, establishing one of the most important aircraft collections in the world and generating gossip when famed aviator Amelia Earhart, a frequent companion of both Hughes and Mantz, figured prominently in Mantz's 1936 divorce trial.
It was in the skies above Seal Beach on Aug. 12, 1917, that Clarence O. Prest, a daredevil motorcycle racer turned pilot, attempted to set a new world's altitude record, reaching an incredible height of 18,100 feet with a makeshift oxygen system while 35,000 spectators gasped below.
And it was in Santa Ana that Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan settled after making his famous 1938 solo crossing from New York to Dublin, Ireland--insisting to furious Civil Aeronautics Authority officials that he had intended to fly west to California but had misread his compass.
IN THE WEEKS AFTER Martin's first tentative flight that day in 1909, he made several more passes across the Santa Ana bean fields, prompting the family doctor, according to Vi Smith's book, "From Jennies to Jets," to write to Martin's mother, Minta Martin: "For heaven's sake, if you have any influence with that wild-eyed, hallucinated, visionary young man, call him off before he is killed. Have him devote his energies to substantial, feasible and profitable pursuits, leaving dreams to the professional dreamers."
Indeed, it was Minta who spent long hours in the abandoned church helping craft the biplane that eventually took flight, Minta who was often in the cockpit, scarf flying, at her son's side, and Minta who was his constant companion and the only woman in his life until the day he died.
As for more profitable pursuits, Martin went on to found the Glenn L. Martin Co., which moved from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, Cleveland and, finally, Baltimore, and was by 1917 the largest airplane manufacturer in the country. Its products ranged from the Martin MB-1 Bomber to the B-10 Bomber, B-26 Marauder and the famous China Clipper, the craft that launched ocean air transport. From those beginnings grew the firm known today as Martin-Marietta Aero and Naval Systems.
Martin's last major feat in Orange County was an assault on the world's over-water flight record, then held by French aviator Louis Bleriot, who had made a 22-mile trip across the English Channel. Catalina lay 33 miles out from Balboa.
May 10, 1912, dawned misty and cool, a low marine overcast hugging the beach. A small crowd had gathered on the sand to witness Martin's departure in a plane of his own design equipped with a large float underneath the pilot's seat and small tubular floats on each wing tip.
Climbing through the clouds, Martin estimated the distance he was covering and began his descent after 25 minutes of flight. Just seven minutes later, he landed in Avalon Harbor, greeted, as the Los Angeles Examiner reported, by a cheering crowd who led him across the street to a restaurant "and made him eat until he could eat no more. Avalon belonged to Glenn Martin."
Taking a few minutes to repair a pontoon damaged on the gravel beach, Martin took off again just after 5 p.m. and flew back through clear skies to Balboa, where his mother and his mechanics were anxiously waiting.
Another Martin legacy to Orange County came with Minta's death in 1953 (two years before his own), when he donated in her memory a $40,000 organ and tower bells to the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana. He arranged to have the bells rung each weekday hour, playing a hymn at 5 p.m., and their caroling still lulls the city to rest at the close of each workday.
IRONICALLY, IT WAS another Martin family--no relation to Glenn--who helped shape much of the rest of Orange County's aviation history.
By 1935, there were 34 small airfields around the county, but the one founded by Eddie and Johnny Martin in 1923 would evolve into the airport that now links Orange County with major air transport centers across the nation.
Eddie Martin, now 87 and living in a small Santa Ana house filled with model airplanes and sepia-toned photographs of long-dead friends and their flying machines, had always wanted to fly.
Growing up on his father's ranch near what is now Newhope Street and Heil Avenue in Fountain Valley, Martin used to dig a cockpit in the dirt of the family apple orchard, plant a shovel in the ground as a joy stick, install himself at the controls and whiz up through the apple leaves without ever leaving the ground.
"I'd look up at those big, fleecy clouds--you could see them for miles away--and that's where I wanted to be," he recalls.
But it was hardly romance that propelled Martin, ever the pragmatist, into his first genuine flying machine. It was the $50 he won when he took second place in an American Legion automobile race in the spring of 1923.
During the race, a Curtiss JN-4D Jenny arrived from Los Angeles and began ferrying spectators into the clouds for a few dollars apiece.
"I kept real good track of that," Martin says. "While we were racing and getting all dirty and dusty, I figured he took in $400 or $500 that day. I figured if that thing could take in that kind of money, I had to have it or one like it."
With a little detective work, Martin found out that Clarence (Ace) Bougoneur was the pilot, and with a little more checking, he learned that a bicycle shop owner from Placentia owned the Jenny.
Martin already had taken a few flying lessons himself, out on a strip at what was then the end of 4th Street in Santa Ana, and he offered to buy the Jenny using his $75 motorcycle and $50 cash as a down payment, plus $50 a month. The owner accepted, and Martin hired Bougoneur as his pilot and began offering rides in the Jenny at $5 a person.
Everything was fine until Martin found out that Bougoneur was taking his girlfriend flying, leaving Martin stuck with the bills. One morning, after Bougoneur admitted to joy riding again and said he had to abandon the plane in a field in Cypress, Martin fired him.
By June, 1923, the Martin brothers had settled on some vacant Irvine Ranch property near Main Street and Newport Avenue that quickly came to be known as Eddie Martin Airport. The Martin brothers offered $5 joy rides, flight instruction at $15 an hour and limited mechanical service. On weekends, they would trot out the Jenny and some of the other birds they'd managed to acquire and entertain Orange County aviation enthusiasts.
In Smith's book, Martin tells of the day--three or four months after they set up business--that he approached ranch owner James Irvine Jr. about whether they ought not to be paying rent on the property. "As I went in the door of his office, I noticed a sign over the door with red letters that said, 'Often the best way to show warm sympathy is with cold cash,' " he recalls.
Irvine, as it turned out, had known they were using the field rent-free all along and offered the brothers a five-year lease on 80 acres at $35 a month, increasing $5 a month each year after that.
The business expanded rapidly. Within a few years, the Martins had installed boundary lights along the dirt strip and a 2-million-candlepower beacon light, according to historian Judy Liebeck, who is helping Martin prepare his autobiography. The first hangar, designed by aviator Clarence Prest, was built in 1926.
But with the advent of the Depression, aviation seemed to take the blows earlier than everything else, and Martin soon was $700 behind on his rent. Irvine's response, he recalls, had very little to do with cold cash. He tore up the lease, put Martin back on a $35-a-month flat rent payment and told him to come back when he thought he could pay more.
The hard times didn't last forever; the Martin brothers' financial problems were eased by the extra money they earned flying for airlines.
EDDIE MARTIN AIRPORT quickly became more than just a spot on an aviator's chart. In the late 1920s, Eddie and Johnny bought a specially modified, 155-m.p.h. Nieuport 28 that on weekend afternoons wowed spectators from all over Southern California when Eddie stepped into the cockpit and put the plane through its paces. And Charles Lindbergh stopped off there one morning in 1928 looking for another field in what was to become Midway City.
Pioneer Navy flier Tommy Tomlinson recalled in a 1979 interview the night in 1927 he'd flown in for a party at Eddie Martin Airport. It was the same day Lindbergh had landed in Paris, and everybody had had a drink or two by evening's end. "When the news came through, I grabbed the girl I was with and we took off to celebrate. I wound up circling around the old clock tower (in downtown Santa Ana) because it seemed like the thing to do at the time," Tomlinson recalls.
"Eddie came tearing across the field in a car as we landed and told me, 'Get rid of that gal and take my car and get out of here.' Then Eddie jumped in the plane and taxied it over behind a hangar and hid it in the dark." When the police arrived, Martin played dumb and pointed toward Newport Beach.
"They were madder than all heck," Martin says, "but they believed me and jumped back into their cars and tore off for the beach."
Within a few years, Johnny was flying for the airlines full time, and Eddie had done stints as a pilot for Western Air Express (predecessor of Western Airlines), American Airlines and MacMillan Petroleum Corp. and as a test pilot for Lockheed Corp. Younger brother Floyd Martin kept the airport running during those days.
By 1939, however, the Orange County Board of Supervisors had plans for the land occupied by Eddie Martin Airport: They wanted to extend Main Street to the south--through the airport--to Corona del Mar. Eventually, the county worked out a land exchange with the Irvine Co. to build a new airport about a mile from the Martin operation on former Irvine Co. land. The county also agreed to grant Floyd Martin and his partner Joe Hager an exclusive lease to operate the new county airport for 17 years in exchange for the right of way across the Irvine Co. land occupied by Eddie Martin Airport.
They agreed and moved Martin Aviation to the new county airport--a business that still flourishes there and at two other locations. By 1941, the Board of Supervisors had completed a $7,500 construction project that included a 2,500-foot paved runway and taxiway and, somewhat later, an administration building--all early hallmarks of the massive growth in aviation that was to come with the county's emergence as an urban center.
Since then, the county airport, which was named John Wayne Airport for the county resident after his death in 1979, has undergone another major expansion and is in the midst of a third--a $296.6-million terminal and parking construction project designed to accommodate 8.4 million passengers a year. Aerobatic biplanes fight for runway space alongside jet airliners.