John Magness, who played a key role in the civilian use conversion of Norton Air Force Base into San Bernardino International Airport has died on February 4 at the age of 57.
As the senior vice president and West Coast director of Hillwood Enterprises, LP, the real estate and development arm of Dallas, Texas-based Perot Companies which he had joined in 1997, Magness came to Southern California in 2002 and transformed the floundering efforts of two governmental joint powers authorities to use the shuttered air base for beneficial economic effect into success through a public-private partnership involving his company.
Magness, who was a prime mover in Hillwood’s activity at San Bernardino International Airport as well as with the company’s activities in five other locations in Southern California, lost his life in a bold misadventure in Argentina, as he was taking part in a three-man team effort involving former U.S. military personal attempting to scale the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, 22,838-foot elevation Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. The Inland Valley Development Agency, founded in 1990 when the Department of Defense announced it would close Norton Air Force Base four years later, was and remains a joint powers authority involving the County of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Loma Linda and Colton, and as its charter overseeing the development of the property immediately around the airport, generally in a manner that is consistent with the aviation and transportation-related facilities at the airport.
The San Bernardino International Airport Authority is a joint powers effort involving the County of San Bernardino and the cities of San Bernardino, Highland, Loma Linda and Colton aimed at the redevelopment of the base property. Th
Though both joint powers authorities were created with the identical stated goal of ensuring “the reuse of Norton Air Force Base for the economic benefit of the East Valley,” the fits and starts in that effort led to very little practical progress and the loss – or what some characterized as the squandering – of approaching or exceeding $100 million in taxpayer money while under the direction of the governmental collective.
It was not until several years after Hillwood – owned by Ross Perot Jr. – entered into a public-private partnership with the San Bernardino International Airport Authority and the Inland Valley Development Authority and was able to effectuate it strategy with regard to the airport and the surrounding property and was given clearance to actively seek national and international companies willing to locate their warehousing, transportation and logistics facilities there that the goal of generating economic growth for the region reached fruition.
John Michael Magness was key to that success.
Born in Texas in 1964, he was nominated by his Congressman to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1982, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, graduating with the Class of 1986.
He remained on active duty with the Army for nine years, becoming a helicopter pilot. He fought in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. effort to get Iraq to disengage from its occupation of Kuwait, which had been initiated the previous year. In that conflict, Magness commanded a fleet of attack helicopters attached to the 7th Corps.
In addition, while he was with the Army, Magness was an operations officer and pilot for the Task Force 160 Nightstalkers, an elite special operations aviation unit that, as its name implies, engaged in nighttime/under the cover of darkness operations. In this capacity, he participated in the Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu, Somalia and in the conflict in Haiti. While he was yet in the Army, he completed a postgraduate degree in Business at Boston University.
A major factor in Magness’s decision to leave the Army was his marraiage to his wife and his determination to provide his children with stable residency.
For a time Magness served as a consultant to the United Arab Emirates government on aviation procurement.
He went to work for Perot Companies in 1997, where he specialized in real estate development, particularly with regard to civilianized former military properties.
In 1999, he published “Pilot Vision,” in part a memoir of his military experience, combined with his observations about how the skills a pilot acquires are applicable in the world of industry and commerce.
“A former U.S. military pilot describes the characteristics that make a good pilot and shows how people in business can use the same ideas and approaches to become leaders,” accrding to the book’s synopsis.
In 2001, eyeing the potential that existed in San Bernardino while local officials were spinning their wheels in trying to come up with a realistic use of the Norton Air Force Base property more than a half decade after that facility’s shuttering, he co-founded with Ross Perot, Jr. a division of Perot Companies, Hillwood Enterprises, LP, a company dedicated to industrial real estate development.
That same year, he moved to Redlands when Hillwood closed a deal on the public-private partnership with the Inland Valley Development Agency. In November 2002, Hillwood was named as the master developer of land surrounding the former Norton Air Force Base and the joint venture was branded as AllianceCalifornia.
Under Magness’s direction and management, AllianceCalifornia prompted the development of the property at the periphery of the airport into a modern multimodal industrial park featuring Kohl’s, Mattel, Stater Bros., Pactiv, Pep Boys and Amazon warehouses. In carrying that off, AllianceCalifornia abated or demolished many, indeed most, of the 1940s era building surrounding the former Norton Air Force Base. Between 2002 and 2018, more than 4.2 million square feet of buildings were razed for reuse. Between 2202 and 2023, 16.1 million square feet of new development was completed.
In the meantime, some degree of progress was being made with regard to the other key component of the overarching airport/logistics/warehousing development formula that had been formulated by San Bernardino County, the cities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda and Highland through the Inland Valley Development Agency and the San Bernardino International Airport Authority. Nevertheless, there were substantial inefficiencies and missteps taken with regard to that effort on the San Bernardino International Airport side of the ledger, with which Hillside had no direct involvement.
SBIAA at one time employed former Loma Linda Mayor/Councilman T. Milford Harrison and Don Rogers as the executive directors of the airport. Both Harrison and Rogers had a hand in hiring Scot Spencer to serve as the airport’s contract developer. SBIAA’s general counsel Timothy Sabo signed off on Spencer’s hiring.
Spencer had extensive contacts throughout the aircraft industry, some of which were Highly questionable. His hiring as contract developer, in which he was entrusted with converting the facility into a true international airport, was done in 2007 under a no-bid arrangement, disregarded his track record with Braniff. In 1991, Spencer and financier Jeffrey Chodorow sought to utilize the remaining assets from Braniff International Airways to create Dallas-based Braniff International Airlines, Inc. Braniff Airways, which had been in operation since 1928, had faltered under its corporate successor, Braniff, Inc., which was created after the former company’s 1982 bankruptcy. Spencer’s effort was unsuccessful and Spencer and Chodorow were both convicted of fraud for absconding with $14 million of the company’s funds. Spencer served a four-year prison term from 1995 until 1999 as a result of that conviction.
After paying his debt to society, Spencer took up where he had left off, becoming involved in the aircraft industry largely on the strength of his contacts with manufacturers, airlines, mechanics and maintenance companies.
He leased from the San Bernardino International Airport Authority the lion’s share of property at the airport, where several companies he was an owner or investor in set up shop, and in 2007, Spencer entered into the agreement with SBIAA to direct what was supposed to be a $38 million renovation of the airport’s passenger terminal and a $7 million development of its concourse. Spencer undertook that assignment amid confident predictions that upon completion of those projects, the airport would attract as many as a half dozen airlines. The cost of the passenger terminal and the concourse escalated to $142 million and the airport was unable to host any commercial airlines for over a decade, with the lone semi-exception of the Million Air corporate aviation facility, which serviced corporate jets and other private pilots, and for which Spencer was the franchisee, from 2010 to 2012. It was later discovered that Harrison was given several lucrative positions with companies involved at the airport which Spencer owned or controlled. With Spencer, Harrison was a manager of KCP Leasing and Services. Harrison and Spencer were also listed as officers with Million Air Development Company, LLC, as well as Million Air San Bernardino LLC. Harrison also had a never fully-specified relationship with SBD Aircraft Services, which Spencer owned. .
The cost overruns for the terminal project, the failure of San Bernardino Airport to attract commercial airlines and Spencer’s relationship with former San Bernardino International Airport Authority and Inland Valley Development Authority executive directors Don Rogers and T. Milford Harrison as well as Timothy Sabo, the legal counsel for the authorities
In March 2013, Spencer along with an alleged co-conspirator, Felice G. Luciano, was arrested and charged by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office with with five felony conspiracy, embezzlement and conspiracy counts relating to using the struggling airport’s account as a personal cash fund, taking $1 million for themselves.
The progress that Hillwood and AllianceCalifornia made at the airport favorably compared with the activity by Spencer and his confederates.
The development facilitated by at AllianceCalifornia resulted in a number of businesses establishing a significant presence in San Bernardino, including the attracting of Fortune 100 and 500 companies that have made $939 million in investments in locating to and continuing business operations locally. According to Hillwood, development at and around the airport has resulted in the creation or replacement of over 10,780 jobs, exceeding those lost because of the Air Force base closure. The development that occurred and accompanying business activity, Hillwood claims, has boosted the local tax base by $850 million increase to the local tax base.
Magness as a member of the West Point Class of ’86, along with Donald Fallin and James Brennan, both members of the West Point Class of ’88, formed what they dubbed “Team Johnny Mac,” which was intended to raise awareness and funds for the nonprofit Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund. The fund was created to memorialize Colonel John “Johnny Mac” McHugh ’86 who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan on May 18, 2010. The Johnny Mac Association takes as its charter providing financial assistance to veterans and their families for education expenses. Magness was, since 2017, a board member of the Johnny Mac Association.
A fundraising strategy the trio employed was to challenge other Army veterans and members of the public to pledge money, augmented by “Go Fund Me” and crowdfunding requests, if the trio lived up to self-imposed challenges they placed on themselves relating to their summitting selected peaks around the globe. Such was the case two years ago when the three made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on January 15, 2021.
Last month, Team Johnny Mac submitted a challenge relating to its determination to make it to the top of Mount Aconcagua.
Using social networking, the team, this time consisting of Magness, Donald Fallin and Keith J. Brown, kept the outside world abreast of its progress up the mountain, which indeed presents a formidable challenge. They had allotted themselves 18 days to make it the peak and back, starting on January 22 and returning on February 9, reaching the summit on the 12th or 13th day – February 4th or 5th – and descending in five or six days. Their intent was to make a moderate speed climb for hikers of their skill and better-than-average speed for climbers of their age – 44 through 58. They were to be assisted by the company Expediciones Grajales – the Andean equivalent of Sherpas in the Himilayas – very skilled climbers familiar with the routes, rigors and perils on the way to the top who guide climbers who less familiar with a particular mountain.
Magness, on his Twitter and social media accounts shared images and his ruminations on his way up the mountain. “”The best view comes after the hardest climb” he had conveyed early in the ordeal.
On February 3, the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund Post stated, “Team Johnny Mac is on the move again – today they climb 4-5 hours to the last camp, Cólera, from where they will attempt the summit tomorrow. Tonight they’ll have dinner at 19,586′ – it’s higher than most places on Earth! While there, the team will have an astonishing view of Mt. Mercedario and other peaks of the Ramada massif. Tomorrow’s climb to the summit will take 8-12 hours. Climb safely today, John Mangess, Don Fallin and Keith J. Brown, and get a good night’s rest before Summit day tomorrow! We wish you good health, strength and safety!
Magness tweeted, “Rested and ready for heavy boots and crampons today to the last camp.”
Crampons are plates with spikes that attach to the bottom of a climber’s boots to provide surefootedness in walking upon ice.
Early on February 4 the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund Post put this message out to the world, “Today is summit day for Team Johnny Mac! U.S. Army veterans John Magness, Don Fallin, and Keith Brown started their 18-day expedition on January 22nd, and after ten days of climbing, the team will finally reach the summit of Mount Aconcagua! They have 8-12 hours of climbing today so they’ll be waking and leaving early to get the most of the long day. As a reminder or if you’re new to the challenge, Mount Aconcagua stands at 22,837′. It is the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres, the tallest peak on Earth outside of Asia, and the second of the Seven Summits, after Mt. Everest. This has been an incredible challenge and we’re in awe of Team Johnny Mac’s stamina and endurance. Be safe, Team Johnny Mac! We can’t wait to see photos from the top!”
On February 4th, however, things went bad.
Reports are contradictory as whether Magness actually made it to the summit.
According to the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund Post, he did.
On Tuesday, February 7, the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund Post offered, “It is with immense sadness that we report to you that our Team Johnny Mac climber John Magness passed away after summiting Mount Aconcagua in Argentina this past Saturday. He is pictured here at the 22,837’ summit! John succumbed to medical complications in the hours after reaching the summit of one of the highest mountains in the world. John and two other Army veterans, Don Fallin and Keith Brown, participated in the ‘Aconcagua Challenge’ expedition to raise funds and awareness for Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund. Don and Keith are now our ‘boots on the ground,’ helping to bring John home to the U.S. swiftly. John was a dedicated leader serving on our Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund board of directors. He was a fierce supporter of our organization’s mission to provide scholarships to military children of our nation’s fallen. In short, he was our classmate, teammate, and friend; he was our hero, serving others until the end.”
Magness’s daughter Chelsea said, “He loved and believed so deeply in the Johnny Mac cause and mission and we will strive to continue his legacy.”
According the local local newspaper Los Andes, Magness collapsed while trying to reach the summit and was assisted at Camp Independence, located at an elevation of about 6,300 meters or roughly 20,670 feet, where the guide who led his expedition provided him with oxygen. Those with him then managed to take him further down the mountain to the Cóndores nest camp, at an elevation of about 5,500 meters or 18,045 feet, where efforts to stabilize him were made.
It was there that Magness succumbed at some time around 2 a.m. on Sunday, February 5, according to Los Andes.
According to that report, Magness suffered cardiac arrest because of the systemic trauma of the extreme effort required to climb to that altitude over the previous week, the thinness of the oxygen at that altitude and the cold.
At the time of his death, Magness was working on a second book, one which took as its subject matter the events leading up to and surrounding the battle during the Vietnam War in which his father was killed. It is not known how close he was to completing that work. It seems, alas, that work will not be completed.
Magness is survived by his wife Angie and their children Chelsea and John Michael.
John Magness, who played a key role in the civilian use conversion of Norton Air Force Base into San Bernardino International Airport has died on February 4 at the age of 57.