John Wayne Airport’s Soaring History
Did you know Orange County got its first airport back in 1923? It all started as a little private landing strip built by aviation pioneer Eddie Martin on land owned by the Irvine Company near what is now MacArthur Boulevard and the 55 Freeway.
That same year, Martin founded Martin Aviation, now one of the nation’s oldest aviation firms. Martin was responsible for adding the first hangar in 1926 and then in 1935, the legendary Howard Hughes staged his world record-setting speed flight from what was then called the Eddie Martin Airport.
Eventually, the county arranged to build a new airport nearby called Orange County Airport, which cost roughly $50,000. Construction began in early 1941 and included an administration building, control tower, hangar and two runways (the first paved runways in the county!).
According to historian Phil Brigandi, the new Orange County Airport opened for business on August 15, 1941. But in less than four months, America entered World War II and after Pearl Harbor the Army Air Corps took over the county airport, which they dubbed the Santa Ana Army Airdrome – an arrangement that lasted until 1946. During this takeover, the Army Air Corps extended the runways and built a number of barracks and buildings.
In addition to planes, the airport became a hotspot for cars too. From 1950-1959 it was a well-known drag racing venue, Santa Ana Drag Strip, operated by C.J. "Pappy" Hart and Creighton Hunter. It is thought to have been the world's first commercial drag strip, utilizing the airport runway, which took place every Sunday.
Fast forward to 1967 and the 22,000-square-foot Eddie Martin Terminal was constructed to accommodate 400,000 annual passengers. After the Orange County Airport was renamed John Wayne Airport in 1979, in honor of one of Orange County’s most famous residents, the John Wayne Associates commissioned sculptor Robert Summers to create a bronze statue of "the Duke." The 9-foot statue, created at Hoka Hey Foundry in Dublin, Texas, was dedicated to the County on November 4, 1982. Today, the bronze statue is in the Thomas F. Riley Terminal on the Arrival Level.
In 2011, the airport was named a Local Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Orange County Branch and is one of only three airports worldwide bestowed with this honor. A bronze plaque was presented to JWA in a ceremony held in the Thomas F. Riley Terminal last week and has been placed permanently on a column in the Terminal B baggage claim area.
Orange County has a rich legacy of aviation and this month we celebrate the birth of its popular and historic airport.