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Dual city airport’s life was short lived, little evidence of the region’s aviation past is intact

Carlos Olvera. File photo
Carlos Olvera. File photo

By Carlos Olvera

In S.H. Woodruff’s plan to transform Dana Point into a Mediterranean-style destination, getting here was the problem. Besides improving highways and roads to the coastal community, the community developer wanted to create an aviation option for travelers and residents.

In August 1929, advertising manager for Woodruff, L.J. Burrud, announced the erection of a 25-foot-high sign on a large building designating “DANA POINT” for motorist and fliers alike to see. Remind you of anything? Think of the Hollywood Hills, does “HOLLYWOODLAND” ring a bell for anyone?

Woodruff’s vision was that people would “commute back and forth from their estates at Dana Point to businesses in Los Angeles.” By September 1931, he began leveling 60 acres near the mouth of San Juan Creek, just south of Mission San Juan Capistrano. The goal was to build a convergence of air, water, rail and road ways where planes could stop off between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Apparently, that airfield never made it past a dirt strip. But after World War II, a second attempt was made. Located at the end of what we now call Camino Del Avion, the revived aviation effort had a 1,300-foot dirt runway and a handful of small buildings associated with it. Ultimately, this endeavor failed and the airstrip was returned to farming fields in the early 1950s.

Years later, a group of individuals decided to improve on the abandoned airstrip by constructing a 1,400-foot landing on leased property. As development in the ’60s took off in San Clemente, the airstrip was referred to as the “San Clemente–San Juan Capistrano Airport.”

The California Public Utilities Commission even got involved in the land’s use when the governing body requested the county take over control of the dirt road leading to the airport, since it crossed the railroad tracks. So, in 1966 the city of San Juan Capistrano annexed the 32-acre site.

The Capistrano Airport as seen in March 1978 is in the foreground of the photograph. The image is an aerial shot looking south toward the OC Dana Point Harbor, with San Juan Creek running along the right side and Interstate 5 running along the left. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
The Capistrano Airport as seen in March 1978 is in the foreground of the photograph. The image is an aerial shot looking south toward the OC Dana Point Harbor, with San Juan Creek running along the right side and Interstate 5 running along the left. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives

Air transportation was in full bloom, which prompted the operators of the small field to request a lease extension from three years to 25. But that request was met with opposition from the Flood Control District who held a lease for a 5-acre portion, in the middle of the then 2,000-foot runway. The dispute threatened an airport shutdown, which would have affected the 62 private planes based there.

The land was purchased in 1964 by Bruce Winton and consisted of 10 acres, with the leasing of additional adjoining land in 1966 that was declared surplus in 1963 from the flood district. As this squabble continued between the county, the city, the owner and the flood district, time was running out. At risk was the county losing tax dollars, on its now 85 planes, to either Oceanside or Palomar airports in San Diego County, since Orange County Airport with 650 small planes, Fullerton with 450 planes and Meadowlark (in Huntington Beach) with 100, were full.

In the end, Capistrano Airport and Industrial Park bought the land in question from the county in a no bid sale in 1969. Then the city of San Juan Capistrano leased a portion of the site, removing it from the tax rolls, saving the owners $4,000 per year. When land managers were ready to further develop the area, the leased land would revert to the owners with no back taxes required. The argument was the airport was a recreational airport performing a public service. To quell the discontent the owners deeded the land to the city.

With the dust settled on establishing the airport, other problems began. In April 1974, a small plane lost power on takeoff and flipped into the creek bed near the end of the runway. By 1976, complaints were starting to come from new developed homeowners, and a shutdown of the airport was considered. A similar closure was considered five years earlier as now the airport had become too small for the developing aircraft, and numbers of aircraft now located there dwindled down to 60.

Then the unthinkable happened. On Memorial Day weekend, May 28, 1977, a 5-year-old girl was killed when she was struck by the propeller of a crashed plane. The plane was towing a banner and crashed shortly after takeoff. The young girl was riding a bicycle along a path bordering San Juan Creek.

The airfield was ordered to be shut down a month after the accident as details of the crash emerged. Not only was the pilot uninjured but he was not properly licensed, had no permission to tow banners and fled to Jamaica after the incident. The airport was closed in 1978. Now, all that remains is the road leading to the airport, Avenida Aeropuerto, and the street where the runway once laid, Calle Aviador.

Carlos N. Olvera is Vice Chair of the OC Historical Commission, and a Dana Point City Councilman.

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