>Bernard McDonough                                                                              
>The History of Moffett Field
>Bernard McDonough, a former school teacher, volunteer at the Navy Museum
>on Treasure Island and an Electronics Technician in the Navy during the
>Korean War, has been involved with preserving the history of Moffett Field
>for the last ten years. As President and Co-director of the Moffett Field
>Historical Society, Bernie and other volunteers recently celebrated the
>reopening of the museum, closed since 2002, in the remodeled building
>formerly used to house the Computer History Museum.
>Bernie will recount the history of Moffett Field from the purchasing of the land
>through its use as a facility for lighter than air craft during World War II and up
>until present day activities, and describe some of the exhibits, photographs
>and other artifacts available for viewing at the museum. He will also describe
>efforts to clean up Hangar One, and register the huge facility as a national
Bernie began his talk by explaining that Hanger One, the big building on Moffett Field, was originally built to house rigid airships up to 900 feet long and about 170 feet in diameter. At the time the Navy built it, they had ten 750 foot long airships in their plans. It turned out they only had four of them that made it into service. The first was the Los Angeles, which they got from the Germans at the end of WW I, was 657 foot long. The first one built in the USA was the Shenendoah, 681 feet long. Then the Akron, the Macon, which were 785 feet long and had tanks that held 6,500,000 cubic feet of Helium in their balloons. To date they are still the biggest Helium airships ever built. A major driving force behind the airship program was Admiral Moffett, whose name is still on Moffett field today.

The Akron and Macon airships were built by the Goodyear-Zepplin Corporation in Akron, Ohio. Some of the technology came from the Germans who developed it during WW I. They had many nifty features including four scout planes they could send out to look for enemy ships or fleets. (This was before the days when RADAR automated scouting.) Cruising speed was about 40 to 50 miles per hour, but top speed was more like 85 MPH. Generally the only time they went full speed was when they were dropping or picking up airplanes.

Unfortunately, rigid airships weren't the safest aircraft ever designed. The Akron went down during a severe weather event with Admiral Moffett and a crew of 75, 73 of whom died when it fell out of the sky. Luckily, 3 crew members were rescued. Something similar happened to the Shenendoah. The Macon patrolled for Naval craft off the pacific coast until an accident of some sort caused the upper tail fin to fall off, puncturing too many of the Helium bags for it too stay aloft. It settled on the ocean about 12 miles off Point Sur, where all but two of the crew were able to get on the life rafts and escape. Unfortunately one guy who had lost his glasses jumped while his end was still 175 feet up, and he died. The other casualty was somebody whom they think asphyxiated himself accidentally by trying to breathe Helium without realizing it. After that the Los Angeles was retired to Lakehurst, where it was used for tests for many years and then taken apart in 1939.

Moffett Field was an agricultural ranchero for many years, up until the early 1900s, when the pieces were sold to smaller farmers. A Naval Board studied the Pacific Coast, and concluded that the Santa Clara Valley was as good a place as any to host lighter than air craft, so a local citizens group put together the land parcel the Navy needed for the airfield and sold it to them for a dollar. Hanger One was built there in such a way that it lined up with the prevailing winds in the area, making it easy to get dirigibles in and out of the building. Since then many other buildings and some runways and other stuff have been added to the facility.

Bernie finished his talk by inviting everybody to come on down to the Moffett Field Museum, which is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 AM to 2 PM in Building 126, where the Computer Museum used to be housed. All you need to do to get onto the base is show a valid photo ID to the guard at the gate. For more information, please visit:


During Q&A a number of interesting points came up:

The airplanes were called Sparrowhawks. They were single seat biplanes with hooks that attached to the airships. If you want to see a film of one taking off and landing, come on down to the museum.

The Helium to keep the planes aloft mostly came from oil wells near Amarillo, Texas. At first it was very expensive, but eventually got a lot cheaper. Hanger one had a plant that could be used to repurify the stuff if it got contaminated with normal air, using cold temperatures and charcoal filters, etc.

The crew was about 80 people because there were eight engines, and each one needed a crew of three people, and they needed three shifts of them so the thing could operate continuously. The rest of the crew were officers for the bridge and Sparrowhawk pilots.

Because they couldn't afford to vent Helium to control altitude, the  sides of the airship had condensers on them to collect water for ballast from the engine exhaust. The condensers were sized so that they could collect water slightly faster than the engines burned fuel.

The Navy stopped developing lighter than air craft because improved fighter technology made them very vulnerable to attack, and also because the aircraft carrier could carry more airplanes further and was much easier to defend against attack.

There are PCBs in the walls of Hanger One. Actually, there is only one type of PCB, but it is a quite poisonous one. A few years ago the Navy painted the building with a coat of sealant, and that stopped the polluting for a while, but now it has started again. At this point they would rather tear the building down for $30 Million than ask for another $3 Million to repaint it every three years. The historical society is looking for ways to keep Hanger One hanging on.

Tian Harter