The USS Macon departing Hangar One, 26 October, 1933
As the home of Google, Apple, Yahoo, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Oracle, dozens of venture capial firms, and untold thousands of tech startups, Silicon Valley enjoys an unsurpassed reputation as a cradle of innovation and industry. But as physical landmarks go, the place is pretty much Nowheresville. For the most part, the Valley looks like the rest of suburban America -- sprawling, laced with highways, and encrusted with ranch-style houses, low-rent strip malls, and mirrored-glass office buildings.
Arguably, this is part of the Valley's charm; Unlike other global hubs of economic might -- think New York, Hollywood, Tokyo, or London -- Silicon Valley seems willfully uneager to erect monuments to its own stature. Nevertheless, the Valley does have a few unique landmarks, and one of these is Hangar One, a cavernous structure at Moffett Federal Airfield that's clearly visible from Highway 101 in Mountain View:
Hangar One in 2006
Every local motorist is familiar with the giant building, but ad hoc polling by Telstar Logistics suggests that few know much about the historic role Hangar One played during the Golden Age of the Great Airships, and how it was once home to the USS Macon, a flying aircraft carrier built to help defend the US West Coast from foreign invasion. Fewer still probably realize that in late November, the US Navy may decide to tear it down once and for all.
We'll get to that sad state of affairs in just a moment. But first, a little background...
During the 1920s and early-1930s, before the advent of sophisticated seaplanes, it was widely believed that airships were the future of long-distance aviation. Unlike blimps, which are essentially little more than giant balloons, airships are built around a rigid aluminum skeleton that is then filled with a lighter-than-air gas such as helium or hydrogen. The Germans had their Zeppelins, of course, but the United States also dabbled in airships, and the USS Macon was one of the more grand experiments.
Launched in 1933, the Macon was based at Moffet Field, and Hangar One was constructed specifically to shelter the giant airship:
More than 40 years before the advent of spy satellites, the Macon served as a long-range reconnaissance platform for monitoring naval traffic on the Pacific Ocean. To accomplish this task, the airship included several unique features, the most remarkable of which was an onboard hangar deck and five Curtis F9C Sparrowhawk aircraft that could be launched and recovered while the airship was airborne. The Moffett Field Museum website explains how this was done:
The airplanes were released via a trapeze and a harness which lowered the planes through a T-shaped hangar opening in the Macon's underside.
Retrieving the planes, however was a much more difficult process. Like a performing air stunt, the pilots had to equal their speed to that of the ship and "catch" the trapeze with a hook at the top of the plane. The harness would then be attached to the fuselage, and the aircraft would be raised into the hangar deck.
Although the U.S. Navy's decision to fill its airships with helium instead of hydrogen meant the American craft were less prone to catch fire like Germany's Hindenberg, they were still very tempramental. After completing 50 successful missions, the Macon encountered a storm on February 12, 1935 while cruising off the coast of California. Crippled by a wind-damaged fin and leaking gas cells, the Macon lost altitude and sank in the Pacific Ocean. The United States hasn't built a rigid airship since.
The Macon is gone, but Hangar One survived. It was used by the US Navy for decades, but in 2002 it was determined that the structure was heavily contaminated with PCBs. It was then closed, vacated, and sealed off. Shortly before it closed, however, Telstar Logistics took this photograph inside the colossal building:
Now the Navy is debating what to do about the problem. The cheapest solution, apparently is to simply tear Hangar One down. Thankfully, a group called Save Hangar One has mobilized to prevent that, and the organization's proposed alternative would involve removing the building's contaminated exterior and "re-skinning" it using a Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric. The catch is that the cost to re-skin Hangar One may run as high as $42 million. Decision time may come in late November, when the Navy is expected to release its environmental evaluation and cost analysis. Our preference in the matter probably comes as little surprise.
UPDATE: 15 October, 2007
Some readers have wisely asked what they can do to help save Hangar One. This afternoon Telstar Logistics contacted Steve Williams, a co-founder of the Save Hangar One Committe. In a comment below, Steve writes:
Those wanting to take action to may sign up to our low-volume Yahoo! email list or RSS feed at www.savehangarone.org. We'll alert you when the Navy comes out with its recommended action this winter--either preservation or demolition. We'll ask you to attend the public hearing, probably in January, send the Navy a written comment, and get in touch with your representatives in Washington. Thanks!
Save Hangar One Committee (Volunteer group working to save Hangar One)
USS Macon (ZRS-5) (Wikipedia entry)
Moffett Users (Unofficial airfield weblog)
(Color photos by Telstar Logistics)