Museum Will Pack Up and Move Too : When El Toro Base Closes, the Marines Won't Be Leaving Their History in the Dust

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Make no mistake, said J.T. (Birdie) Bertrand, the pristine planes parked in the hangar and on the Tarmac a couple of blocks from the officers' club are going where the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station goes. They just aren't going to fly there.

At an indeterminate time in the future, when the base finally closes, the approximately 25 needle-bright war birds will have their wings detached and will roll out the gate on flatbed trucks, headed for the next destination of the base.

Along with them will go an impressive collection of historical photographs, paintings, equipment displays, films and videotapes, books, records, models and other memorabilia of the history of Marine aviation at El Toro and throughout the West Coast.

The planes--all of them non-flying static displays--and the rest of the gear are housed in and near a nondescript building on the base that is the home of the only official Marine Corps aviation museum in the western United States. Its collection recounts the history of the corps in the air on the West Coast during the 20th Century, at bases from Corvallis, Ore., to San Diego.

And, said Bertrand, the vice chairman of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro Historical Foundation, which runs the museum, "wherever MCAS El Toro goes, we go."

"We're going to assess everything we own in January," in preparation for the eventual move, Bertrand said.

That inventory figures to be quite a job. The main museum building houses several "theme" rooms, all of which contain displays of not only aircraft models, photos and squadron historical notes, but also actual flying equipment, mostly from the Korea through Vietnam war eras.

Aviation paintings also line many of the walls, including one oil by R.G. Smith that has a peculiar hypnotic tendency. It is a rendering of a flight of A-4 fighters flying low over the ground, and the lead plane appears to be flying directly at the viewer no matter where that person stands in front of the painting.

A real A-4--albeit a static one--sits outside the museum in its "back yard," along with an OV-10 observation aircraft used in the Gulf War, a C-119 transport, an F8U Crusader (which, said Bertrand, flew in for the last time only nine months ago), and an F9 F-2 Panther jet (of the type featured as William Holden's plane in the film "The Bridges of Toko-Ri").

Inside the adjacent hangar are three nearly mint condition planes: a World War II-era AT-6 Texan, a flat black F4U Corsair fighter used for night combat in the Pacific, and a gleaming silver Korean War-era TO-1 Shooting Star, "the first jet to fly out of El Toro," according to Bertrand.

An inoperable F-4 procedures trainer--not much more than a detached cockpit--sits against one wall, but nearby are two operable World War II gunnery training machines. They operate much like arcade games, complete with projected images of attacking fighters and metallic machine gun sounds.

A small group of former pilots and aviation enthusiasts are almost constantly at work caring for the planes in the collection and restoring any new ones that arrive, Bertrand said. And the restoration jobs are not merely exterior window dressing; on nearly all the aircraft, Bertrand can open a canopy or an exterior panel to reveal the planes' inner workings all properly painted, labeled and wired.

And if a full plane isn't available, the museum staff will gladly take parts, for there is a "boneyard" next to the main building where everything from spare wings to control sticks are kept for possible future use.

"We have our own aviation Cal Worthingtons here," said Marsh Austin, a member of the museum's board of advisers.

There are even an unlikely pair of foreign aircraft in the museum inventory: a cumbersome-looking but pristine Korean MiG 15 jet and a large peach-colored Iraqi helicopter that, said Bertrand, is rumored to have been assigned to Saddam Hussein's staff before it was captured during the Gulf War.

As a kind of counterpoint, near the helicopter is a gleaming blue TBM Avenger, the same type of plane once flown in World War II by former President George Bush.

The museum continues to expand even though its days in Orange County are numbered. The research library in the main building--containing nearly 1,000 videotapes and almost 600 movies, as well as hundreds of bound volumes--is expected to open to the public within four or five months, Bertrand said. And a second building has already begun to fill up with such items as an anti-aircraft gun, a Link trainer and a small single-engine scout plane.

The museum's operating hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Tour groups can be accommodated with one week's notice. Admission is free, but visitors must check in at the main gate for a museum pass before entering the base.

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