With its back to the coastal mountains of Oregon, the world’s largest free span wooden hangar sleeps like a giant on green grass under a rusty blanket of tin. Known as NAS Tillamook Hangar B, it is the sole survivor of the 17 wooden hangars the U.S. Navy built on the West Coast in 1942 to protect K-class blimps when they weren’t flying anti-submarine missions. On closer reflection, its past suggested the future of aviation.
Its alphabetical predecessor, Hangar A, was built second, in 27 working days, in 1943. What makes this feat remarkable is the hangar’s size: 1,072 feet long, 296 feet wide, and 192 feet high. It covers more than seven acres, and each hangar held up to a half-dozen K-ships, which were 252 feet long and 80 feet in diameter. At each end, concrete stanchions support the 120-foot-high six-section doors that moved on railroad tracks to a 220-foot wide yawn.
The stanchions and the concrete footers for the wooden arches that supported the tarpaper and tin roofed structure are all that remain of Hangar A. It burned in 1992. To offset some of hangar’s $20,000 monthly upkeep, it rented some of its seven acres as storage, and it was 7,600 tons of straw awaiting shipment to Japan that caught fire. The straw, worth about $200,000, was insured. The hangar, owned by the Port of Tillamook Bay, was not.
Hangar B survives, but as I paced off its length and examined its rusted covering, I wondered for how long. A portion of its space is home to the Tillamook Air Museum, but it looks like the Stimson Lumber Co. is the major tenant. During my visit, and walk to the remains of Hangar A, which was situated 90 degrees to Hangar B’s orientation and a 20-minute walk away, a forklift shuttled wide mouthfuls of 2×4 and 2×6 studs through the massive doors open just a crack.
Like the blimps it once housed, the hangar faces an uncertain future, despite its Guinness Book of World Record notoriety and its place on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Unlike airships, which are attempting a comeback, the cost-benefit future for Hangar B is bleak. And this reality helped focus a situation faced at many of the small airports I visited this summer.
Just as NAS Tillamook and its blimps had outlived their usefulness to our national defense in 1948, when the Navy decommissioned the air station, general aviation has diminished to the point that many general aviation airports seem to have outlived their usefulness to the small towns they serve. And like Tillamook, many of them are repurposing their hangars as storage units.
Sitting in the shadows cast by the doorway stanchions for Hangar A, I looked across the airport at Hangar B and wondered what all the people who served here when the air station was alive on active duty would think. My epiphany was that they would be sad, just as I am when I see a small town airplane hangar advertised as a storage unit, because they lived through the change and could compare past to present. But to those born after the change, what is change to us is how it’s always been to them, and what changes they will see in their lifetimes depends on their interests and efforts to sustain or revive general aviation. –Scott Spangler, Editor