The massive, historic north hangar at the long-shuttered Tustin Marine Corps Air Station wasn’t the only World War II-era relic demolished last month. In nearby Irvine in mid-November, a demolition crew tore down an old hangar that once stood at the Great Park — along with a rare World War II-era aircraft it housed.
This demolition was vastly quieter than the fire that destroyed the Tustin structure, and the news came as a surprise to Tom O’Hara, a retired U.S. Marine previously employed by the city to head efforts to bring an aviation museum to the Great Park, which stands on what was once the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
“The whole military community, the aviation community, is sort of stunned by this,” said O’Hara.
O’Hara and an aircraft restoration team hired by the city spent nearly five years restoring the plane, a 1943 Lockheed PV-1 Ventura — severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina — after it arrived from New Orleans in the summer of 2008.
It was the Great Park’s first vintage plane, and while it’s unknown if this particular plane ever flew out of El Toro, the PV-1 was a fixture on the base during the war. Standing 52 feet long and 12 feet wide with a 65-foot wingspan, the PV-1 was the first stealth aircraft used by the Marine Corps, O’Hara said. It’s a relatively rare plane, with only 3,000 sold worldwide.
But this one was scrapped during a planned demolition of the hangar in mid-November, part of the city’s plans to clear the Great Park of old buildings and structures for a transformation of the park.
The PV-1 was donated to Irvine by Aviator Underwriters of Dallas in 2008. Back then, staff estimated costs to transport and restore the aircraft at $70,000. The Great Park budget then had $500,000 planned to find and restore aircraft, and $250,000 budgeted for maintenance in general.
At that time, Irvine was pursuing plans to open a Museum of Heritage and Aviation and looking for planes and artifacts to showcase, said city spokesperson Kristina Perrigoue. In those preliminary plans, the PV-1 was to anchor the park’s planned aviation museum.
But due to changes in City Council leadership, Perrigoue said, development priorities shifted, and the MOHA was stripped from development plans.
Irvine’s intent then, Perrigoue said, was to relocate the PV-1; the aircraft could not remain where it was housed in the Great Park due to construction and development happening in that area.
“When the Great Park Board approved the current Great Park Framework Plan, which is this current phase of development happening at the Great Park, that included a lot of different demolition, construction, grading of previous hangars or areas that maybe no longer were part of this future plan or potentially just needed to be removed for safety,” Perrigoue said.
To find the vintage plane a new home, the city first offered it to the Flying Leathernecks Aviation Museum in San Diego, which has an agreement with Irvine for the city to store its 40-plus air fleet and another tentative agreement for the museum to be a permanent fixture at the Great Park. But due to financial constraints, the museum could not take the plane.
The city then contacted more than a dozen different aviation and transportation vendors, including Cal-Aerofab Flight Academy in Chino and Irvine-based SoCal Aircraft Inspections, to move the plane, said Perrigoue. None of the options were at all cost-effective, she said.
“When I say move, we’re talking about moving the plane less than 1 mile to a different location at the Great Park,” she said. “But the quotes we were getting for that minimum move were in the hundreds of thousands (of dollars), some even up to $250,000, which is pretty cost-prohibitive of taxpayer dollars.”
And many vendors said the plane would need to be taken apart to be moved, and it wouldn’t be able to be reassembled, Perrigoue said.
“So that taxpayer burden for such a large amount, only to then have it resolved in the same manner, didn’t seem like there was a great value add there,” she said.
Perrigoue said she does not know exactly how much demolishing the plane cost for the city because it was included in the overall lump sum cost of demolishing the 125-acre land at the northern edge of Great Park, which was $2,549,427. The city spent approximately $70,000 to transport and restore the aircraft, and it’s unclear how much of the money Great Park had budgeted for aviation artifacts and work was used for the PV-1, Perrigoue said.
Never mind the steep price tag, the vendors also lacked resources to be able to successfully move the plane, said Melissa Haley, Irvine’s director of communications and engagement.
“We’ve been trying to find a solution for quite some time, and unfortunately, aviation partners and transportation experts have not been able to foster a solution for us,” she said.
Jeff Dyberg, principal at SoCal Aircraft Inspections, said he was extremely doubtful of the integrity of the plane’s landing gear and whether it could handle the three-quarters of a mile move to a different hangar.
“Ultimately, it’s a 10-ton piece of equipment,” Dyberg said. “It’s an old plane, and risking a collapse during the travel was a big issue.”
“I’ve reached out to peers in the industry, and the complexities involved, they were just too much,” he said.
Jason Cowls, an Irvine native who piloted the Great Park’s hot air balloon from 2017 to 2018, said he’s disappointed the city didn’t try moving the plane earlier when the Great Park area was less developed. (Perrigoue said there were usable runways when the plane arrived in 2008 — and several years that followed — that connected the park and made it easier to move the plane. Demolitions on the former El Toro Marine base runways began in late 2014.)
“As I would fly the balloon, I would try and figure out a route to get that aircraft from the hangar to another resting location,” said Cowls, now a SpaceX technician living in El Segundo. “The problem is, as there was more development around the airplane, around those hangars, that made it less and less able to be done.”
“This plane had been through hell and back. It had survived Hurricane Katrina. It had seen war. It’s a monumental piece of history,” Cowls, who remembers volunteering to work on the PV-1 as a high school student, said. “It’s very much mirroring the loss of Hangar One at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. A double blow.”
While future Great Park visitors won’t see the PV-1 in its full form, they may be able to view identifiable pieces of the plane: Parts of the tail, propellers, wings and flight controls were preserved from the scraps, Haley said. The city is trying to determine where those parts will go.
“They may go into a different building in the interim before there is an aviation museum in place,” Haley said. “But we definitely plan to preserve and highlight them within city structures and venues to still have an homage to the PV-1 and its significance.”
There are no additional costs to preserve the remaining parts of the PV-1 because they are being stored in one of the hangars at the Great Park, Perrigoue said.
The plane’s long history
News of the plane’s demolition sent shockwaves thousands of miles away. Tony Jarvis, president of the Ventura Memorial Fleet Association in the Canadian province of Alberta, dedicated to the preservation of 1943 Lockheed Ventura aircraft, said the demolition was “a complete shock.”
The demolished plane, once part of the Royal Canadian Air Force, had served in World War II and was stationed alongside the last known RCAF Ventura aircraft, still largely in its military configuration in Canada.
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“These airplanes were used by all the Commonwealth Air Forces; U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army; the Royal Canadian Air Force; South African Air Force; the Royal Air Force,” Jarvis said. “But unfortunately, it seems to have fallen by the wayside for recognition because it’s not a sexy-looking airplane or its virtues were never expounded on in movies.”
When asked why the PV-1 couldn’t have been a part of Great Park’s Heritage and Aviation Exhibit when it opened in 2015, Perrigoue said the two other planes were already well-maintained and did not arrive dilapidated as the PV-1 had.
To make matters worse, restoration efforts were halted on the scruffy aircraft in 2012, leaving it to decay in the old hangar, which Perrigoue credited to “a change in priorities” as some new City Council members took their seats on the dais.
“There was a lot of exploration and looking at what had been done thus far at that time as far as Great Park development goes,” she said. “And it kind of paused a lot of different things to do an assessment of what was happening, what had happened and how they wanted to move forward.”
“We were obviously hopeful of a different outcome,” Perrigoue said. “We’ve been trying to preserve the plane since 2008, but a variety of factors and partners and funding have led us here.”
Within the next several years, the area where the old hangar and the plane inside it once stood will be transformed into grounds for a Veteran’s Memorial Park and Gardens, adjacent to a new library at the Great Park.
Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.