Thursday, September 29, 2011

The USS Macon Returns to Moffett Field

The model of the historic rigid airship USS Macon moored in Moffett Field's Hangar Two.

It was quite a day for retired engineer Jack Clemens. He has spent three years building a scale model of the historic US Navy dirigible USS Macon from the specifications of the original rigid airship.

Facing trials and tribulations that involved a cat pouncing on the delicate model (well, it did look sort of like a bird--to a cat), to getting the balsa-and-Mylar craft tangled in a tree, Clemens' journey has not been uneventful. Today, for the first time, he took the remote-controlled model successfully aloft at Moffett's Hangar Two. And a crew from Canada's Discovery Channel was there to record it.

Jack Clemens, at the nose of the craft in a yellow shirt, readies his model for its flight. The Discovery Channel crew is at right.

In a twist right out of an Ernest K. Gann tale (read Fate is the Hunter), the flight faced one more, impossible-to-predict, last-minute hitch: without Jack realizing it, a fluorescent bulb in the ceiling of the room where the model was stored burned out and oozed fluid that seeped into the model's wiring over the last few days, thus disabling several of her motors. So she flew on the motors that remained. It isn't irreparable damage, but it leaves Jack with a big repair job before his "official" flight for the media, October 15th, 2011, the 78th anniversary of the original airship's arrival in Sunnyvale. (She will eventually come to rest at the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, where she will be on permanent display.) 

Jack Clemens and the crew from Canada's Discovery Channel.

The original USS Macon was moored at Moffett Field's enormous Hangar One.  The airship was lost off the coast of California in a storm in 1935. Jack Clemens' goal, when he began his project, was to fly his Macon model in Hangar One, thus, returning the ship, in a way, to her home.

The U.S S. Macon at Hangar One, about 1934. If you look carefully you can see the cars lined up along the roadway (lower left) to watch it.

But the historic, iconic Hangar One is now being dismantled, something Jack Clemens called "a damned shame." 

Workers rappelling down the side of Moffett's Hangar One as they remove its skin in a picture taken 9/29/2011.

NASA, now the landlord of the old navy base, made the World War II-era Hangar Two available for Jack's sentimental journey. Though it wasn't what he had hoped for, in an imperfect world it was a good substitute.  And off she went!

The airship flies again photographed by Jay Kemp.

Jack Clemmons (center) flying his Macon model by remote control.

Quick! Grab the tether! The model comes in for a rather quick landing.

With a sigh of relief, she's safely home.

Jack Clemens was born in 1933, the same year the USS Macon arrived at Naval Air Station Sunnyvale--later NAS Moffett Field. When reporter Dave Litman asked him how he felt after the flight he said with much emotion: "I said I would bring the Macon back to Moffett." Then, he had to clear his throat a couple of times to go on: "And that's what I did."  He was too choked up to say any more.

It takes a lot to bring a tear to the eye of an engineer. But this had done it.

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Thaddeus said...

There's always something interesting and fun to read on your blog, Robin. This is a great account of the return of the USS Macon. Thanks you!

Don Meuler said...

Where's the "Like" button? Really nice, satisfying account of a noble project.

Robin Chapman said...

I think you just hit it!
I had this weird feeling as I stood there in the hangar watching this. I don't know anything about this stuff so what am I doing here? It was my father's thing! He flew his Cessna out of Moffett for many years and also flew radio controlled planes with friends in Hangar One. It was spooky. I think he must have joined us yesterday ...