Lonely Planet Writer

California's least-known airport is set to get a facelift from the Marines

The ageing main runway at Catalina Island’s ‘Airport in the Sky’ has been in pretty bad shape for a number of years with potholes and pebbles. Now the crumbling mountaintop runway, built almost 80 years ago, is about to undergo a much-needed facelift with the help of the US Marine Corps.

Catalina Island’s ‘Airport in the Sky’ is about to undergo a $5 million facelift. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Catalina Airport (AVX) is the only airport on Catalina Island, the rocky 74-square-mile island that’s located just 20 miles from the Los Angeles coastline. Known for its unique micro-climate, sandy beaches, glass-bottomed boats, clapboard houses and freely-grazing bison, the island swells in population during the summer months with tourists (mostly Californian day-trippers) filling out the fish shacks and ice-cream parlours of the main town of Avalon’s bustling boardwalk. Most people arrive by ferry or boat, sometimes even helicopter, but the airport isn’t utilised enough. Also known as ‘Airport in the Sky,’ Catalina’s airport is situated atop a 1602-foot-mountain and its single 3250-foot-long runway has been in dire need of repair for a number of years.

An early image of Catalina Island Airport. Image by Getty

Now a US$5 million project will get the airport back on track. The project is a joint partnership with the US Military and the Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC), the trust that runs the airport and oversees most of the island. US Marines from the local I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) based at Camp Pendleton will participate in the runway project. In addition, the project will also offer troops strategic training, providing them with the experience to build or repair airfields or other infrastructure when they’re deployed in remote or island stations. It’s part of the Department of Defense’s Innovate Readiness Training Program (IRT), which pairs community needs with military training opportunities.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 30: Airport on Santa Catalina Island, a rocky island off the coast of California (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Flights to Catalina Island were first handled in seaplanes, with the first operation taking place in 1912. The ‘Airport in the Sky’ opened in 1946 when Catalina Airlines was founded and it was constructed of pottery and tile and landscaped with lush gardens. It was considered “one of the most beautiful airports of its kind,” according to early tourism campaigns. Work for the airport was commissioned by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley’s family, who owned the island and developed it as a tourist resort in the early 1900s. The airport is a “historical and critical asset,” said Tony Budrovich, CEO of CIC. It serves the island’s 4000 residents, businesses and approximately one million annual visitors.

A private contractor will start tearing the runway up in early December and repair work will be carried out between 16 December and 30 March, 2019.