Wind Beneath Our Wings:
A Look Back at Historic Meadowlark Airport
“The end of an era.”
That’s the term normally used to describe a famous venue’s closing, a celebrity superstar’s passing or any number of general conclusions to whom or what was once embraced by an adoring public. Such is the case for historic Meadowlark Airport in Huntington Beach, a small general aviation strip about a mile east of the Pacific Ocean that, much to the dismay of “seat-of-the-pants fliers” everywhere in Southern California, closed its doors permanently in 1989. Operated privately in the 1940s and publicly from the 1950s to its demise, Meadowlark was purchased in 1947 by the Koichi and Toyo Nerio family and their children Art, Yukio and Betty, with eldest son Art Nerio having managed the airport from 1970 until the closure in ’89. Nerio could be identified, back in those days, as a lone bicyclist figure keeping an eye on things around the 80-acre airfield.
After years of wrangling over safety issues among city officials, nearby residents and pilots, the owners of Meadowlark – notably Art and Dick Nerio – decided to shut it down to make way for condominiums and a shopping center, but the airport didn’t go down without a fight: Indeed, an association of pilots and homeowners, many of whom were opposed to the traffic the shopping center would attract, filed suit against Huntington Beach to keep the airport open until construction began on the new project.
When the airport first opened, several other small airfields were listed nearby, including Huntington Beach Airport, a small field with one hangar and fuel facilities built on a peat marsh in east Huntington Beach. Meadowlark was initially designed as a short landing strip to be used mostly by students to practice touch-and-go landings; the runway was first extended to 1,750 feet and paved, and then further extended to 2,070 feet with room for 150 aircraft. Additional hangars, a restaurant and fuel facilities were later added, with the airport’s official address landing it between Heil Avenue and Warner Avenue. Interestingly, Plaza Lane remains a small street that runs through what was once Meadowlark’s runway.
From classic biplanes and racing planes to acrobatic stunt craft and specialized aircraft, all sorts of aerial vehicles have been flown into Meadowlark by highly-skilled pilots, including a veteran Goodyear blimp commander and Spitfire fighters/Lancaster bombers for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Still others have flown modern military jets and several are current or retired commercial airline pilots. However, most of the Meadowlark flying crowd consisted of private pilots who liked dropping through the hole in Huntington Beach’s smog for a quick burger and a chat.
One of those folks was Al Buckner, a roofing contractor from Buena Park who keeps his 1961 Piper Colt tied down at Fullerton Municipal Airport but who frequently used to fly into Meadowlark. A pilot for 15 years, he formerly flew a sky-diving plane in Michigan and says, “It’s almost a Midwestern type of place; you would meet World War II bomber pilots, United Airlines pilots…and the waitresses all knew your name. It was like a small town, and there seemed to be no caste distinction; in Southern California, you needed something like that for balance.”
Bruce Miller, a building contractor from Lakewood, said he has flown out of Meadowlark since 1968 when his friend, a dentist, brought him to the airport for a flight. Anticipating the airport’s closing, he moved his plane to John Wayne Airport about two years prior; as he puts it regarding Meadowlark’s appeal, “It was the people, the restaurant…walking around the hangars…at one time, my business card had two phone numbers on it: My business phone and the number of the phone booth at Meadowlark. A lot of business got done on that phone – and then there was the social element; half the flying out here was the social part. You’d be sitting around talking and someone would say, ‘Let’s fly to Catalina’…and you’d say ‘Let’s do it.’ And you’d pick up and leave right there on the spot.”
Indeed, for the uninitiated, that sentiment required confidence – the single runway at Meadowlark was only 2,100 feet long and about 35 feet wide, so the final approach for landing had to be steep and swift, with takeoffs made decisively.
Occupying the former airport site today is the Summerlane community, which encapsulates the Norma Brandell Gibbs Butterfly Park, and visitors to the park can gawk at a plaque commemorating Dick Nerio and Meadowlark Airport…a place that represented a home for the gypsy in the private pilot’s soul…a gravelly oasis where cruising for burgers in a Cessna was the “in” thing to do.
And a place that will never be forgotten in the hearts of seasoned Southern Californians.