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Moffett Field — Airships to Aerospace and the Moffett Field Historical Society

26 April 2010

Moffett Field — Airships to Aerospace and the Moffett Field Historical Society

37º 24’ 37” N / 122º 03’ 08” W

Named after a man who may be singularly responsible for the naval aviation that we know of today, Admiral William A. Moffett, the facility is easy to reach from either San Francisco International Airport or the slightly further away Oakland International Airport. He was an astute man who could judge engineering achievements for their future use as well as battle politically within the US Navy as well as the US Congress. We shall hear more about him later in this post but an excellent read about him can be had with the book Admiral William A. Moffett: architect of naval aviation, William F. Trimble, 2007, ISBN 978-1-59114-880-7, 338 pp. Moffett Field is also home to the NASA Ames Research Facility but I was not able to visit during my time at the field.

Historical marker at Moffett Field signifying it as a former naval air station — photo by Joe May

Currently the hangar is closed to the public for environmental health reasons (toxic materials are being removed). The Moffett Field Historical Society (MFHS) is located in an equally ancient, quaint and warm building just across the street. MFHS is also a unique museum. Not large but not small, having a research library and many exhibits relating the Moffett field as an airship base as well as a naval air station. My interests took me right to the airship section, it is a den sized room, with a several foot long three dimensional color illustration of an airship like the USS Akron which I found fascinating to investigate. Airship sections of duralimin (one of the first hardened aluminum alloys to be developed) are on view, flight gear, signaling gear and the like. Different times to be sure.

Moffett Field Historical Society Museum with the southern end of Hangar 1 in the background — photo by Joe May

Hangar 1 is another story. Its interior is volumous and the roof is being rehabilitated. The trick, though, is that the money to eventually resheath the roof has yet to be found. Depending upon the future use there could be benefactors or they may not. So the hangar houses aircraft undergoing restoration as well as those ready for display — but they cannot be seen by the public. This must be quite disconcerting for the museum, to have assets that would attract visitors secreted away from view. Talking with a knowledgeable volunteer there, and a man who has experience in organizations as well as logistics, that is the understandable impression I received. This is not to mention having one of the few remaining large airship hangars in the world to show. The hangar’s hidden treasure includes a Lockheed P2V Neptune (formerly the one on outside display just down the road), a Lockheed U-2, a NASA Lockheed TF-102 Starfighter and a McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) F/A-18 Hornet. Thankfully, the Lockheed P-3 Orion remains on static display for the public 0.15 miles (0.25km) to the south on Cody Rd.

Lockheed P-3 Orion at Moffett Field — photo by Joe May

The “stinger”” of the Lockheed P-3 Orion — photo by Joe May

There are restrooms, of course, but no café as it is hardly needed since the field is located in a heavily urbanized area. Entry is done through the gate on Moffett Blvd, an exit from the US 101. For directions to the museum it would be best to stop by the visitor’s center just to the right before entering the gate. Entry is modest and for a good cause, as it is with museums in general, but especially with this one. Moffett field is about 20 miles from San Francisco International Airport* and a bit further from Oakland International Airport**.

Moffett Field is, of course, named after one of the country’s historic figures, in this case an especially historical man. William Moffett is known by many as the man who supported airship development and use in the early 20th century — in fact he perished with 72 others in 1933 when the airship USS Akron was forced to ditch into the Atlantic Ocean — but he did much more than airships, he also inspired development with aircraft, engines, strategy and getting budgets allowing the US Navy to keep pace with European powers. A former battleship officer, Admiral Moffett saw great potential for giant airships in terms of projecting power as well as in patrolling. Back in the day, choices were not limited regarding long ranged aviation sorties — there simply weren’t aircraft choices, only airship choices. Airship engineering and aerodynamics were well advanced in the 1930s. An airship is not a docile thing to fly, especially at speed. As they turn, the vertical and horizontal tail surfaces semi-swap their original assignments so trim must be constantly adjusted, the great length of the airships meant a challenge when trimming at lower altitudes and large ground facilities were needed for logistical support. The Akron, for example, was 785 feet long and 153 feet high so large hangars were constructed to house these immense craft. One of these great airship hangars still stands at Moffett Field — Hangar 1. The great airships flew long distances and quickly for the day — a day when roads were few and cars were as unreliable as aircraft — so the attraction to develop the full potential of the great airships is more than understandable to me. Meteorology for aviation was also new and airships proved vulnerable to heavy weather which caused a few major casualties — heavy weather was perhaps the Achilles Heel of airships, ultimately making for a low military potential. But what options were there at the time? Thinkers of the day foresaw aviation bringing an end to the glory days of the battleship but the trick was deciding which aspect of aviation’s development would evolve to accomplish that end.

Admiral Moffett focused the Navy’s efforts in aviation’s other aspects. Solving the conflicts of the Navy’s design and development system with regard to private aircraft manufacturers and their ability to reliably remain in business — as well as engine development, all metal constructed aircraft and different types of ships for supporting aircraft (from aircraft carriers to “cruiser-carriers”). A post on Admiral Moffett describing his life and times will publish in the future.

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* the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library & Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum (but informally called the San Francisco Airport Museum & Library) is located with the International Terminal, soon a post will be made regarding my recent visit there

** the Oakland Aviation Museum is located at the Oakland International Airport property and a post will appear soon regarding my recent visit there

For more reading about airships, I would suggest:

  • Airship Aerodynamics: technical manual, US War Dept., 2003 (from 1941), ISBN 1-4102-0614-9, 74 pp.
  • USS Los Angeles: the Navy’s venerable airship & aviation technology, William F. Althoff, 2005, ISBN 10-1574886114, 336 pp.
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