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Joy Rides, Mystery Planes and Stolen Thunder

The legends of El Toro are as numerous and high-flying as the planes that took off from the base.

Once, in the late ‘80s, a young corporal assigned to simulated flight training couldn’t resist. He jumped into a jet and went for a joy ride. Or so the story goes.

“He’d never flown a real plane in his life,” said Tom O’Hara, a Marine veteran and the base museum curator. “He flew it around a couple of times, and landed perfectly. They bounced him out of the Marines. Corporals don’t fly.”

Then there is the mystery plane. Flown in under cover of darkness sometime in the 1980s, the C-54 transport plane was found parked in a far corner of the massive base.

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“It just showed up,” O’Hara said. “It’s been under investigation by the Department of Defense since it landed.”

Whoever flew it in “just gutted it.” Even ID numbers were removed. Speculation included it being used for CIA covert operations, but there may be a more benign explanation.

“A lot of C-54s are used for firefighting. They’re shifted around from base to base. That may be the real story,” he said.

But the plane still won’t release its legendary grip. The contractor hired to move it has found it surprisingly difficult to disassemble, and it may very well be the last flying machine to go.

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The first El Toro war story occurred on opening day. The honor of landing the initial plane went to Col. Theodore B. Millard, who had cajoled rancher James Irvine into selling the land for the base, and was now its commander. But a competing Army pilot swooped in moments before Millard, stealing his moment of glory.

There is one Marine phrase, “Bravo Zulu, aviator,” that captures the legendary heroism of pilots, bombardiers and others.

“It’s a pat on the back, it means a job well done,” Maj. Brian Kapple said.

Bravo Zulu, El Toro.

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