Home News A final salute to Moffett Field’s historic Hangar 3 as it’s demolished

A final salute to Moffett Field’s historic Hangar 3 as it’s demolished

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A place that is no longer wanted by the nation it helped protect, Hangar 3 is being demolished.

There was an era when the cavernous structure, one of three hangars at Moffett Field between Mountain View and Sunnyvale, had the attention it deserved. Inside its historic wooden walls, generations of proud servicemembers moored and maintained the aircraft that defended us from predators.

But time has overtaken Hangar 3. Built during World War II, the blimp hangar has long stood idle and empty. Decaying and dangerous, it would cost a fortune to fix.

Its death has been years in the planning, but now it is time. Demolition is systematic and controlled, slicing the building from north to south. A quicker strategy, using explosives, could stress adjacent structures. It will be gone by next March.

“There is a deep sense of loss,” said Jonathan Ikan, cultural resources manager at NASA Ames Research Center, which owns and operates Moffett Field. “It has had, and will always have, an everlasting mark on our history.”

Hangar 3 and its two siblings have been a famed part of the Peninsula’s landscape, punctuating the eastern horizon like giant gray anvils. Hangar 1 is easily viewed from Highway 101; Hangars 2 and 3, more distant, are best seen from the public Golf Club at Moffett Field.

Built in response to the escalating war in Europe, they are among a handful of surviving U.S. blimp hangars — and are among the largest free-standing wood structures in the world.

Moffett’s largest and oldest, massive Hangar 1, was built with steel framing in 1933. Hangars 2 and 3, built between 1942 and 1943, are both wood framed and more vulnerable. As part of Google’s deal with NASA to lease parts of the facility, the company is restoring Hangars 1 and 2 for use in private projects.

Once Hangar 3 is leveled, only five of the original 17 hangars nationwide will remain, said NASA historian James Anderson. Last November, a Tustin-based hangar ignited with such fury that firefighters just let it burn.

The news hit hard in Hangar 3’s close-knit community of veterans, now retired and scattered across the United States, who are connecting online to share photos and memories of a place that irrevocably changed their lives.

They are sharing painful memories of friends who died in the skies, and the relief of watching others return safely. Inside Hangar 3, murals of each squadron’s mascot — a marlin, a black cat, a phoenix, and more — were proudly painted on walls.

They recall winds so fierce that once a giant door blew down, damaging a plane and crushing a truck. An earthquake so strong that it triggered waves, like water, across the concrete floor. An oxygen tank that exploded, soared through the air and pierced a hangar wall.

A mural in the breezeway of Hanger 3 at Moffett Federal Field. The decaying hangar, built during World War II, is being demolished and will be gone by next March. (Dominic Hart/NASA Ames Research Center) 

Aviator Larry Beck was on duty on August 5, 1962, the day actress Marilyn Monroe died. “Somehow people got the notion it was a security threat,” he wrote. “We were inundated with phone calls.”

Hectic during the day, Hangar 3 could feel haunted at night. There were owls in the rafters — and a visiting fox.

“It was an awesome place to work,” said 68-year-old John Arthur Davis, of Klamath Falls, Oregon, who cared for the wheels, bearings and tires of surveillance aircraft Lockheed P-3 Orions. When on midnight “hangar watch,” he would pedal the vast perimeter in the dark on his bicycle.

Chris Oman, 77, of Grants Pass, Oregon, a field engineer for the hangar’s Lockheed P-3 Orions in the 1980s, feels “a lot of nostalgia. It served a really special time in history for the San Francisco Bay Area.”

“It felt like family. There was camaraderie there,” said Charles Marotta, 71, of Las Vegas, a medical corpsman who tended to Hangar 3’s sick and injured. “We got them ready to go. We got them fixed when they came back.”

Hangar 3 was built in a hurry, without rigorous research and testing, according to NASA historian James Anderson. The United States desperately needed blimps to conduct submarine surveillance operations along the Pacific Coast.

The original plan called for Hangar 3 to be made of steel, like Hangar 1. But metal was needed for shipbuilding and weapons.

So, instead, it was built of less durable wood. More than 50 arches of Douglas fir, like a giant rib cage, were curved to accommodate the giant blimps.

The size of six football fields, Hangar 3 could house six to 12 aircraft. Flared outer walls provided space for offices, a lab, a shop and storage.

Huge 121-foot-tall doors, rumored to be resistant to nuclear blast, rolled on rails.  A pair of catwalks, 15 stories high, provided access to vast upper reaches.

“It was so big that it would have its own fog up there,” recalled Davis. When a cold front rolled through, “it would drizzle inside.”

After the war, the blimps were replaced by Military Air Transport Service planes, whose mission was to deliver cargo, personnel and mail to armed forces across the globe.

The Cold War brought new responsibilities. Part of Moffett Field’s so-called “Orion University,” it housed P-3 Orion patrol squadrons, which flew long, slow and low missions in search of Pacific threats.

“The job was to keep watch over the Soviet navy — both their surface ships and, especially, their submarines,” said retired Captain Tom Spink, board chair for the Moffett Field Museum.

It later housed C-121 Super G Lockheed Constellations, which transported military personnel and their families, then Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which moved cargo. The routes went to Pacific Island nations, as well as the Philippines, Japan, South Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — “very interesting places,” recalled retired pilot and Navy Lieutenant Glenn Cribbs, now 87, of Hollister.

One of its last roles was to provide around-the-clock mechanical support to the 129th California Air National Guard.

“The place was busy 24 hours, seven days a week. There were always planes that needed maintaining,” said 57-year-old Tony Divito of Burlingame, who worked on planes’ weapons systems. “We were never closed.”

The beginning of the end came with the 1990 Base Closure Act when Moffett Field was shut down to save money. The Navy transferred the hangars to NASA, which then leased them to Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures.

Hangar 3 has outlived its design lifespan, said NASA’s Trina Meiser, an architectural historian. Even when young, it needed work, such as a new roof, stronger trusses and bracing.

An overhead view of Hangars 2 and 3 from the northwest corner of Moffett Field in June 1943. (Ames Research Center)
An overhead view of Hangars 2 and 3 from the northwest corner of Moffett Field in June 1943. (Ames Research Center) 

Despite such efforts, its roof sagged. Timbers fell on the hangar deck. Air conditioners and heaters quit working. During storms, the floor needed mopping.

“The thing that got me the most was the two to three inches of wood splinters and dust” atop offices and catwalks, recalled fire inspector Rick Say, 68, of Union, Washington. “If any little spark happened, the whole thing could go up.”

For several years, Google tried to slow its decay.

“But shoring would be installed for one location and then damage would happen in another location,” said Andres Estrada, Ames environmental protection specialist. “It became this progressive problem.”

Officials gave in to despair. In a report, NASA concluded that repairs would be “extensive, undefinable, and cost-prohibitive.” Hangar 3’s last resident was the National Guard’s engine shop.

“Finally the word came out that it just was not possible to save it,” said Spink.

“It’s going to be really hard when it all comes down,” he said. “We’re going to have to raise a glass to Hangar 3.”

Hangars 2, left, and 3, right, at NASA Ames Research Center on Monday, May 15, 2006. Hangar 3, considered unsafe, began demolition in Dec. 2023. It will be completed by March 2025. (NASA Ames Research Center)
Hangars 2, left, and 3, right, at NASA Ames Research Center on Monday, May 15, 2006. Hangar 3, considered unsafe, began demolition in Dec. 2023. It will be completed by March 2025. (NASA Ames Research Center) 

Learn more about Hangar 3’s legacy at NASA’s new educational website: https://historicproperties.arc.nasa.gov/h3historysite/initial/

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