Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Officials Ponder The Future of Behemoth Airship Hangar

USS Macon at Hangar One
Moffett Field's Hangar One Should be Preserved

Hollister Free Lance

     Next time you travel along Highway 101 as it passes Sunnyvale's Moffett Field, glance over to the east and notice the colossal construction that looks like some cigar-shaped UFO just landed. This remarkable landmark is an artifact from an exciting but short-lived program when the U.S. Navy experimented with helium-filled dirigibles.

Called Hangar One, the building is one of the world's largest free-standing structures. It was built in 1932 to house the USS Macon, an airship the size of the Titanic.

Imagine this silver-colored "Monarch of the Skies" floating silently over our South Valley region as it headed to Monterey Bay on training missions and coastal patrols. During the early years of the Great Depression, it symbolized a future where humans could do almost anything - if they only dared.

The U.S. Navy built only two great airships. The Macon's sister, the Akron, in 1931 set a world record of carrying 207 people into the clouds. The Macon itself was 785 feet long - the height of a skyscraper 78 stories tall. Tucked inside its hull, it carried five bi-winged Curtiss Sparrowhawks. The scout planes could launch and return onboard using a trapeze-like capture system that caught a hook on the airplane's top wing.

Manned by a crew of between 75 and 100 sailors, the beautiful airship had a nautical range of more than 7,000 miles and could stay in the sky for more than 150 hours. Her top speed was 75.6 knots.

In 1933, the USS Akron crashed in New Jersey as it patrolled East Coast waters. Among those who perished in the tragedy was Admiral William A. Moffett, the man who headed the Navy's airship program. Moffett Field was named in his honor. A few weeks later, his widow christened the USS Macon. Based at Moffett Field, the airship patrolled the West Coast region for two more years.

On Feb. 12, 1935, the Macon crew spent the day on a fleet maneuvers exercise just off Big Sur's rugged coast. Late in the afternoon, the dirigible headed back to her back. Unfortunately, at dusk near the Point Sur light station, she hit turbulent weather from a winter storm.

A gust struck the ship and severely damaged the top tailfin. Lighthouse keeper Thomas Henderson witnessed the unfolding disaster through his spyglass. "When it was just about abreast of the Point, the fin seemed to go to pieces very suddenly," he later told the naval inquiry board. "The fabric drifted back. Some of it caught on the rudder."

As the tear grew, helium began to escape from the ship's gas cells. The rear of the Macon sank toward the ocean. The crew dumped ballast and fuel, but so much was dropped so suddenly that the airship shot back up 4,850 feet into the sky. Upon reaching the great heights, the automatic valves activated, releasing more helium.

The Macon soon lost its buoyancy, and made a slow fall toward the choppy waters below. It took 20 minutes to descend before gently hitting the storm-tossed waves.

Immediately, the crew started abandoning ship. Of the 83 men onboard, 81 escaped to safety. One man died when he jumped ship high over the ocean. Another man drowned when he swam back to try to retrieve his belongings.

The Macon's demise that day marked the end of one of the most exciting chapters of U.S. aviation history. Now, 71 years later, Moffett's Field's Hangar One remains as a monument to that colorful story.

Unfortunately, in recent years that massive edifice itself has become imperiled. Navy brass are considering tearing it down because toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in the rubber skin of the building is now washing into the nearby marshland. The building also contains asbestos and lead. The cost of demolishing the building is estimated at $12 million, Navy officials say. Renovating it would cost twice as much.

Is it worth spending $24 million to preserve this historic artifact from an innovative age of aviation? Many Silicon Valley locals believe it is.

Some suggest that the building could become a major tourist attraction as world-class museum of flight. Another proposed use is as an emergency base in case a disaster such as a cataclysmic earthquake strikes the Bay Area. Another proposal is to make the building available for business conventions and large-scale charity events. One quirky idea was to cover the building's outer skin with photovoltaic cells, making it a solar-powered energy machine.

Regardless of how it might be used, Hangar One should be saved for a number of reasons. Although some people consider it ugly, I've always thought that its futuristic architecture has a wonderful offbeat charm. Silicon Valley has few architectural icons as it is, so it would be a shame to lose one of its boldest building designs. Also, I believe the story Hangar One tells us is an important one to uphold. It reminds us of an era when American aviation was exciting and young and we dared to "aim high," as the Navy slogan goes.

Most of all, like Steve Williams, one of the founders of the Save Hangar One Committee, I believe it represents what Silicon Valley's cutting-edge culture is all about. We live in a place where we take pride in innovation and bold ideas - even if those ideas ultimately fail. We gain from our failures just as much as our successes. Hangar One symbolizes that philosophy.

"There's so much aviation history embodied in Hangar One that I would hate to see it torn down," Williams told me in a recent phone chat. "Can you imagine back in the 1930s, some farmer or worker in Gilroy looking up and seeing this massive thing flying overhead? It must have seemed like Buck Rogers to them."

It's unlikely Titanic-sized airships will once again float gracefully over the South Valley. Those days are gone as the Macon's wreckage lies at the bottom of the Big Sur coast. But in memory of that exciting time, we must preserve Moffett Field's Hangar One.

More . . .

See Also: Possible Commemoration For The Downing of The Schutte-Lanz Airship in 1916


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