Wednesday, February 20, 2013
In the Pipeline: The little airport that was
By Chris Epting
The Huntington Beach (CA) Independent
The original entrance sign for Meadowlark Airport.
There is a clue on Warner Avenue near Bolsa Chica: a small street that leads into the shopping center where Ralphs is, next to McDonald's, called Airport Circle.
Many of you may know what that means, but I'm sure there are also a lot of newcomers that are oblivious (just as I was when I moved here) to the fact that Airport Circle is named that because it was once the entranceway to an intimate little airstrip named Meadowlark Airport.
From 1945 to 1955 it was called East Long Beach Airport. Then until 1963, it was called Sunset Beach Airport. But from August 1963 until it closed in 1989, it bared the name that most people recall: Meadowlark.
Next year marks 25 years that the funky, neighborhood airport shut down so I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the history and catch up with a few of those who remember it best. To look at aerial shots of it today, it boggles the mind to think that it ever existed at all.
Squeezed in among homes and businesses, Meadowlark Airport, much like the Golden Bear downtown, became a beloved touchstone over the years; a meeting place not just for pilots but also for locals who enjoyed watching the planes and eating at the small café that was located there.
Owned by Nerio family from 1952 on, the airport took up about 65 acres and never even had a tower. But that didn't matter. Pipers, Cessnas, Luscombes, and Taylorcrafts still flew in and out by the hundreds. People took flying lessons there, and of course, planes hoisted beach banners every summer day.
It's doubtful anyone knows more than that than Bob Cannon, a.k.a. "Banner Bob" who ran his banner towing company out of Meadowlark from 1976 until the end. Now 81, retired and living in Oregon, Cannon told me that being at Meadowlark was like stepping into another era.
"It's hard to say what made it so special, but I think most of the charm came from the fact that it always felt like about 1950 over there. Plus, there was no bureaucratic interference. We were all on our own at Meadowlark. Pilots could camp out with their girlfriends or families or Fourth of July right there at the airport. Where else would that happen?"
Interestingly, Canon's first client was the much-missed Golden Bear, and so many of the banners he towed would advertise shows downtown. Canon also remembers the Nerio family who, despite being extremely wealthy, never behaved as such.
"They were very unpretentious people," he told me. "We'd see them on the property in their brown pith helmets looking for cans in the garbage that they would actually go and return for money. Despite how much property they owned in the area, they were still very frugal and I always respected that."
On the last day the airport was open in late summer 1989, Canon was the last pilot the fly a plane out of Meadowlark. He kept his business there for about a year afterward and would occasionally drop banners off from his plane, but as far as the last official flight, he owns it.
"It was such a sad day," he said. "So many friendships grew out of that airport and the last day felt kind of like the end of school. Everybody would be moving on, and wouldn't be able to gather at the same place and share laughs and stories like we had for so many years."
Donna Foulger, a longtime Huntington Harbour resident, also has vivid memories of Meadowlark. She described to me the day the plane missed the runway and crashed into one of the office buildings that bordered the airport property (this happened more than once). She was also there that last day.
Foulger was kind enough to share some photos that she took as people gathered to say goodbye in 1989 and offered this remembrance: "I was there, as were mobs of people. A long summer's day. Every plane flew off while the sun was setting and there wasn't a dry eye in the place. All had to be gone by sundown, as it was a visual only airport; no tower, no lights – it was the end of an era."
Next week in this column will be some memories I'm gathering from a weekly breakfast where old-time pilots gather in Huntington Beach. Also, I'm in the process of trying to track down the location of the blue sign once located at the entrance, and will update you on that.
Until then, if you're near the area and want to see a little reminder of what used to be, go over to Gibbs Park near where Graham Street meets Heil Avenue. They are on Plaza Lane that runs through the summer Lane development, there's a small marker in the ground that offers some information on Meadowlark.
For those of us that didn't have the privilege of experiencing Meadowlark, it's a nice way to spur thoughts of small, multicolored planes flying in and out just overhead; another charming chapter of Huntington Beach that like so many others, just seems to outlive its usefulness (at least, to those waiting to develop the property).