Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Landmark Worth Saving

The U.S.S. Macon headed into Hangar One at Moffett in the 1930s.

Hangar One at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California is something you can't miss if you have ever come in to or out of any of the San Francisco Bay Area's airports. Built in 1932 to house the observation dirigibles of the U.S. Navy, this one building covers eight acres and is large enough to hold ten football fields. From the air, you can't miss it. And from the ground, driving around the Bay Area, you still can't miss it. It rises 198 feet above its base of reinforced concrete set on pilings so strong, eight decades of earthquakes have rumbled beneath it to little effect.

Its doors weigh five hundred tons each. The structure is so big, military pilots who have flown in and out of the base over the years say it has its own weather in there.

The dirigible fad came and went quickly in the 1930s. The airships were designed to be used for naval observation and to launch small planes call Sparrowhawks, but they turned out to be problematic at best. The U.S.S. Akron visited Moffett Field only once, in May of 1932 before it returned to its base in Lakehurst, New Jersey and went down in an Atlantic storm in 1933. Only three of its seventy-six crew members survived. The U.S.S. Macon was based at Moffett after its delivery in 1932 and cruised the West Coast until it was lost off the California Coast near Point Sur in 1935. In that accident most of its crew survived. But it was the death of the airship.

The U.S.S. Macon out over Moffett and Hangar One, 1930s.

In 1940, future President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, starred in Murder in the Air featuring scenes at Moffett's Hangar One. In a foreshadowing of his proposal for a missile shield, Reagan's "Brass Brancroft, American Secret Agent" uses the super secret Inertia Projector to shoot inertia beams at an enemy airship that stop it cold. What a great idea!

The U.S. Army Air Corps--later the U.S. Air Force--used Moffett Field for training during World War II and the hangar to safely store its planes. Actor Jimmy Stewart took his flight training in the shadow of Hangar One before he went off to help win the war in Europe as a bomber pilot.

Since World War II, Hangar One has been a friendly landmark for visitors and residents and a white elephant for the government. Who should maintain it? What should be done with it?

Hangar One at Moffett today.

For some time in the 1980s and 1990s, people who owned remote-controlled airplanes had club meetings in there and flew their miniature aircraft all over the place inside the hangar. That ended after September 11, 2001 when NASA/Ames, which now operates Moffett Field, suddenly discovered there were PCBs in Hangar One's siding, and closed the inside of the hangar to the public.

The latest proposal is to get a HazMat crew to removed the PCB siding and to leave Hangar One as just a skeleton. What a silly idea that is. It is a hangar and it should look like a hanger.

That is my father and me at Moffett with Hangar One in the background, in a photo taken earlier this month.

You can visit the hangar, at least its exterior, if you drive to the gate at Moffett and tell them you want to go to the Historical Museum there. A group of terrific volunteers operate the museum and will be glad to walk you through the hangar's history, and the latest efforts to preserve it.

With all the "stimulus" money flowing out of Washington, you might think removing the contaminated siding and replacing in properly would be just the kind of project to keep Silicon Valley's economy stimulated during these troubled times. Hope somebody figures it out.

Hangar One needs preserving for the sake of Brass Brancroft, his inertia projector, hero Jimmy Stewart, the crews of the airships, and all the dreamers who managed to get those airships floated. America is the land of impossible dreams, made possible. Every big, creative idea here, whether success or failure, leads us on to the next. The airships and their stupendous hangar were just such a dream: a big idea that has left us an astounding monument to cherish.

All photos courtesy of the Moffett Field Historical Society.

Santa Clara Valley History

Moffett Field Museum

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