Fullerton Municipal Airport is the last general aviation airfield still in Orange County. It traces its origins back as early as 1913 when barnstormers and crop dusters used the then vacant site as a makeshift landing strip.
Since those inauspicious beginnings, the Airport has grown into a modern and efficient transportation center which has played a significant role in the growth and prosperity not only of the City of Fullerton, but of all of Orange County.
It took a person with imagination to see a future for the 53-acre plot of land that would become Fullerton Municipal Airport. The land, once used for raising pigs, had been the City's sewer farm for many years. So deeply rutted and unpromising was the parcel that a City Councilman, despairing of any chance to sell it, declared it good only "for raising bullfrogs."
The imaginative heroes of this Cinderella story were brothers William and Robert Dowling, Placentia citrus ranchers and pioneer aviators, who saw in the abandoned sewer farm the makings of an airport that would one day become a major transportation center for Orange County.
The Dowlings needed a landing site near the home their parents were building in Fullerton. At the time, they were landing their planes at a strip on the Loftus Estate in Brea.
One day in the summer of 1926, William Dowling drove past the by then abandoned sewer farm and decided it would be ideal for a landing strip. Enlisting the aid of H. A. Krause and the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce, the Dowlings approached the City Council for permission to turn the farm into a landing field. In January 1927, the Council signed Ordinance 514, leasing the land to the Chamber for five years, at a fee of $1 per year. The Chamber, in turn, subleased operations to William Dowling and friend Willard Morris of Yorba Linda.
Nailing several wooden planks together, the Dowlings hitched the drag to a tractor and cleared off the first formal landing strip. A small hangar was built, and, on Feb. 24, 1927, William Dowling - piloting a "jenny," a Curtis JN-4D Primary Military Training bi-plane - flew from Brea to make the first landing at Fullerton Airport. By July, the Airport's location was listed on aviation maps.
Dowling became the unofficial manager of the Airport, but earned a living by giving flying lessons, carrying passengers, and conducting sightseeing trips. He often swapped the lessons or rides in exchange for something of value if his customer was short of cash.
The Airport was officially dedicated April 21, 1928, and more than 3,000 persons attended the ceremony. Two days later, the Airport hosted the first of many air shows, attracting more than 5,000 persons. Thirty planes zoomed overhead in flying demonstrations, and free rides were given to those attending. Special guest was Jackie Dare, who performed a parachute jump from a Waco plane piloted by Dowling.
Morris sold his interest in the Airport to Claude Long, who, in turn, sold to Robert Dowling. The Dowlings were then joined by Cecil W. "Ces" James in operating the Airport. William Dowling left the Airport in 1930 to become a pilot for TWA, and Robert Dowling went on to become manager of Placentia Mutual Orange Association's packing house. Both men, however, continued to help with the Airport until the war years.
| Fullerton Municipal airport circa 1930
(Photo courtesy of the Fullerton Public Library)
The 1930s ushered in a decade of "firsts" for the little airfield. In 1931 air mail service was launched, with Postmaster John B. Horner marking the occasion by hand-canceling letters. The mail also carried an Airport cachet specially issued for the day. In 1934 the first industrial lease was issued at the Airport - to a manufacturer of metal dirigibles. While that business never got off the ground (literally), it led the way for many other firms who saw the advantage of an airfield to their business operations. In July 1938 the first night flights were recorded.
In January 1941 the Chamber of Commerce's 14-year stewardship of the Airport ended with the City Council, at the urging of the Chamber, voting to take direct control of the facility.
In 1939 the James-Colboch Air Service became headquarters for a new government program called the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The program, operated in conjunction with Fullerton Junior College, helped Airport operators make ends meet until the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. With the nation's entry into the war, all civilian flying was stopped within 150 miles of the coastline, and CPTP pilots and their planes were sent to Parker, Ariz., to complete their training. The Airport was then closed.
However, planes soon began flying over Fullerton again, only this time they bore military insignia. Both U.S. Army Air Corps and the Navy needed auxiliary fields for their new bases at Los Alamitos and Santa Ana, and used Fullerton Airport for training. When the war ended, the field was returned to the City, along with a new 1,700-foot paved runway.
It was then that Fullerton contractors William and Richard Jewett took an interest in the field, establishing Fullerton Air Service, which, along with the Hebert Air Service, was sufficient to handle the 25 planes based there. By 1948, however, the Airport, equipped with such modern features as landing lights, was home base to more than 200 planes, as compared to 96 at Orange County Airport. It was ranked the fourth largest airport in the state, and, because of the large number of planes, was known unofficially to the Federal Aviation Administration as the "Fullerton Air Force."
In 1945 the Airport emerged on top of an attempt to build a competitive field. The City Council rejected a proposal for a second airfield on property known as the Lochman Foundation Tract in what is now the Sunny Hills section of Fullerton.
In 1959 the FAA gave the City $300,000 for field improvements which included the addition of a control tower to the existing administration building, which had been constructed in 1948 at a cost of $120,000. Fullerton's FAA tower was the first in the county.
In 1960 the City, using $101,000 in FAA and City funds, accomplished a number of long-needed projects, including extending the runways to its present length of 3,120 feet; building new taxiways on the north side of the field; and extending existing taxiways.
| Dick Riedel and Bill Barris aboard the Sunkist Lady
(Photo courtesy of the Fullerton Public Library)
Fullerton Municipal Airport has played its part in writing aviation history over the years. In 1949 Dick Riedel and Bill Barris piloted the Sunkist Lady to an endurance flight record, staying aloft 42 days. In 1965 Hacienda Heights housewife Nancy Brissey landed a two-seat single-engine plane at the Airport after piloting it 2,500 miles from Vero Beach, Fla., the first solo flight of such duration by a student pilot.
The Airport has also played host to many celebrities, including President Gerald Ford. An early celebrity was daredevil test pilot Johnny Angel, who created a sensation when he flew a fleet of surplus B-18 bombers from Downey to Fullerton after World War II for repairs. He then led the fleet to Venezuela where he ran a transport operation. With an 86-foot wing span, the bombers are the largest planes ever to land at the Airport. In 1929 Hollywood descended on the Airport for filming of aerial sequences for the adventure movie, "Hell's Angels." Airport lore has it that millionaire recluse Howard Hughes also paid a typically mysterious visit, arriving at the field shortly before midnight one night to sign the agreement to purchase the land for his Hughes Aircraft Ground Systems Group facility in Fullerton. Hughes reportedly left without ever bothering to tour the property he had just purchased in a multi-million dollar deal.
Today, Fullerton Municipal Airport encompasses 86 acres, and has room to accommodate 600 planes. Its expansion days over, the Airport now concentrates its energies on maintaining its reputation for excellence as it continues to meet the present - and future - transportation needs of the citizens of Fullerton and of all of Orange County.
Visit the Fullerton Heritage Web site