Nevada County Airpark In Retrospect

By Tim O'Brian



The origin of this popular airpark is rooted in native clay, refined from the same deep ore of prosperity this community has known since its beginning! Hard rock mining. Long before there was an airstrip, a young and aristocratic Errol MacBoyle put his genius to work. Consolidating a number of mines and smaller claims, he created the Idaho Maryland Mines Corporation. His enterprise grew and became one of the nation's richest gold producers while occupying nearly 2,200 acres of land adjacent to Grass Valley, not all of which was suitable for mining. Sensitive to local criticism of mining companies and their unkempt appearance, MacBoyle acquired portions of this land for his own attractive development, vowing to "plow back his gold into the ground he found it." He hired no less than the designer of San Francisco's Golden Gate park to create the spectacular Loma Rica Ranch (Spanish for rich land). MacBoyle then built a 13 million gallon reservoir on a wooded hilltop overlooking the ranch as a source of irrigation and water for the mines. Later additions included a stone-arched bridge leading to an attractive gazebo, and a replica of the "Fountain of Western Waters" that he had seen at the San Francisco World Expedition in 1939. Just east of the monument, in 1933, was born the MacBoyle legacy we honor today. Local youths vacationing from school were hired to prepare an 1800 foot airstrip while carpenters from the mine completed the first of two airplane hangars the following year. The purpose of the airfield was to serve the needs of the Idaho Maryland Mine, primarily to fly gold from Grass Valley to Mills Field, (later San Francisco International), and the mint. MacBoyles first airplane was a Vultee V-1A which he purchased second-hand from American Airlines. Powered by a huge 800 horsepower engine, the nine passenger V-1A featured all metal construction, retractable landing gear, and sterling performance. But its passenger career was cut short by a government ban on single engine airliners.

In 1936, he purchased a Lockheed model 10A Electra, a dual tailed, all metal monoplane powered by two 450 horsepower engines. A year later he traded it back to Lockheed for the new model 10E which was identical in appearance but featured 600 horsepower engines. The gleaming Electra was truly the "Lear Jet" of its day making the trip to San Francisco and back in about an hour. Only twenty 10E Electras were built, one of which was flown by Amelia Earhart on her ill-fated round-the-world flight in 1939. A successful repeat of Amelia's flight was recently completed by Linda Finch in a restored Electra. Not a pilot himself, MacBoyle hired the best he could find. James W. Carson joined the company in 1938 after a distinguished career with Western Air Express. There he logged over 10,000 hours flying mail routes over the Rockies in open-cockpit biplanes. Along with the gold, Carson also flew MacBoyle to his many social events and in 1939, flew ten rescue miners to a tragic mine fire in Nevada. Ironically, Stew Carson, his son, will be flying Nevada County residents on nostalgic gold country tours aboard the Otis Spunkmeyer DC-3 at the 20th annual Grass Valley AirFest a generation later.

As war clouds gathered, the U.S. Army began confiscating high performance airplanes from civilian operators for government use. Fearing this, MacBoyle sold the Electra and continued gold flights using a Waco Custom, a five seat biplane powered by a single 350 horsepower engine. A two-place Taylorcraft was also acquired to teach mine officials to fly. In 1939 and 1940, the California Air National Guard conducted training maneuvers at the sight using obsolete B-18 bombers and various observation planes. Security was tight and the airport could only be accessed by special permission.

The onset of World War II and the government order that followed meant closure of the mines and all related properties for the duration. As chairman of the California State Mining board, MacBoyle fought vigorously to keep the mines going but to no avail. What seemed the final blow to the airport, however, was a wartime ban on civilian flying 150 miles inland from the coast. The Army dug ditches across the runway and the airport fell into disuse.

In 1946, attempts were made by local citizens to bring the facility into the county system and secure funding for improvements. Federal participation was arranged through Congressman Clair Engle but the attempts failed at the local level. The airport remained abandoned until 1955 when it was acquired by Charles V. Litton, a pioneer in the vacuum tube industry and founder of Litton Industries. Litton moved his engineering laboratory to Grass Valley in 1953 and was the first to bring "high-tech" to Nevada County. He purchased 153 acres including the airport from the MacBoyle estate, offered the field for public use, and immediately started working on the landing strip. Between 1941 and 1955, trees and brush had grown up in the runway and considerable erosion occurred. After spending $10,000 of his own money, local citizens approached Litton offering assistance while the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce and Nevada City business man, Downie Clinch were busy soliciting funding. Grass Valley and Nevada City Public Works, California Department of Forestry, and others donated heavy equipment and operators. The field opend the follosing year as the Loma Rica Airport.

The local mines that struggled back into operation after the war did so at a marginal pace. The low inflexible price of gold made any large scale mining unprofitable resulting in their final closure in 1956. Realizing the devastating impact on the economy, Litton co-founded the Loma Rica industrial park Inc. in hopes of bringing light industry and tourism to the area, or as he put it, "Mining the gold above the land."

Now boasting a 3,900 foot lighted runway, full time mechanics, and radio facilities, the corporation gifted the airport and surrounding roads to the county in 1957 on the condition that it meet specific criteria regarding public access, future development, and maintenance. The company then laid plans for an ambitious industrial park highlighting all benefits and amenities of the area while offering 18 prepared construction sites with airplane access. Colorful booklets bearing endorsements from city and county officials were distributed, however, sales were not forthcoming. In fact another 15 years would pass before Litton's visionary industrial park would reach its potential.

Another important reason for rebuilding the airport was to offer the state and federal government a suitable facility for basing firefighting planes and a retardant mixing plant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and California Department of Forestry (C.D.F.) now realizing the effectiveness of fighting fires by air, was eager to contract with private companies who provided planes and pilots. (This segment and photos are from the article published in The Union July 9, 1997). 

The Airpark in 1997