That Giant Structure Off 101 Once Housed a Flying Aircraft Carrier

8 min
The floor space within Hangar One is big enough to hold seven football fields.  (Chris Figge/Flickr)

If you've driven north on 101 through Mountain View, you really can't miss Moffett Field. Seeing the giant open airfield is one thing — but what really grabs the eye is the larger-than-life birdcage-looking structure known as Hangar One.

Bay Curious listener Laura Sneddon of Los Gatos has heard some stories about this spot over the years, and wrote Bay Curious to ask, "What is Moffett Field used for? Is it a NASA research center, a military base, or an airfield for private use by tech companies like Google?"

The short answer is: Yes! Moffett Federal Airfield is part NASA research center, part military base and part airfield for private use.

But the long answer is much more interesting.

Moffett Field Gets Its Start with the Navy

Back in 1930, the good citizens of Santa Clara County bought 1,000 acres of waterfront property in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, and then sold the land to the U.S. Navy for $1.

The land was considered ideal to house the USS Macon, part of the U.S. Navy's rigid dirigible fleet.

A view of Moffett Field from way up high.
A view of Moffett Field from way up high. (Courtesy of NASA)

A dirigible is steerable, inflatable aircraft, first developed in the mid-19th century in France and Germany. This category includes everything from balloons to blimps to the rigid dirigible, a massive wonder of design developed in the 1870s.

If you travel northbound on 101 in Mountain View, you’ll see to the east what looks like a giant empty birdcage on an airfield. That was the garage, if you will, where Naval Air Station Sunnyvale parked the USS Macon.

The USS Macon flying over New York in 1933.
The USS Macon flying over New York in 1933. (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

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Bill Stubkjaer, curator of the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, explains: "After World War I, the U.S. Navy was extremely concerned about Japanese expansion in the Pacific, and they wanted a way to scout. Well, there was no radar. There was no satellites, and if you wanted to know where the enemy fleet was, somebody had to go out and look for them."

It's hard to get your mind around how big the USS Macon and its like were, even though they show up in a number of movies, including Pixar's "Up."

A rigid dirigible has an internal metal frame and inflatable bags of gas that can carry the giant way up into the atmosphere and help you see far over the ocean.

They were used in World War I for scouting and even bombing attacks in Europe. The Navy commissioned six in the 1920s and '30s, including the USS Macon, once called the "Queen of the Skies.”

"785 feet long. It was a flying aircraft carrier," Stubkjaer says. "It had what was called a trapeze, which was basically an arm that could swing down, that would hold the aircraft until it was ready to fly off. And off it would go.

"When it wanted to land, the frame would come down, the airplane would fly up, hook on and swing up into it. So it could hold four airplanes (Sparrowhawk biplanes, to be specific). And the idea was that the airship would take it out to the area they wanted to investigate and then send the airplanes in a search pattern to cover a great deal of distance."

But Rigid Dirigibles Had a Tendency to Die Young

The USS Macon went down off the coast of Big Sur in 1935, when it ran into some bad weather. Two of its 83 crewmen died. "That basically ends the rigid airship program," Stubkjaer says.

You can see what the team of Exploration Vehicle Nautilus saw when they explored the wreck of the USS Macon on the ocean floor in 2015.

It's worth noting the end of the Navy's rigid dirigible program predates the horrific Hindenberg Disaster in 1937, when the hydrogen-inflated German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and went up in flames while trying to dock in New Jersey. Thirty-six people died.

The U.S. military's rigid dirigible fleet flew using helium, not hydrogen, but the giant airships were delicate creatures. For a variety of reasons, nearly all of them crashed.

Bill Stubkjaer, curator of the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, stands in front of a Vultee BT-13 Valiant and Hangar One. That hangar used to have a skin, but it was peeled off due to its toxicity. "From a visual perspective, it's more interesting without the skin, because you can see the intricacies of the internal structure," Stubkjaer says.
Bill Stubkjaer, curator of the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, stands in front of a Vultee BT-13 Valiant and Hangar One. That hangar used to have a skin, but it was peeled off due to its toxicity. "From a visual perspective, it's more interesting without the skin, because you can see the intricacies of the internal structure," Stubkjaer says. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Moffett saw a lot of military use in the decades that followed, including blimp patrols in WWII, but let’s fast forward to today, when this former naval air station is now owned and operated by the Ames Research Center, also known as NASA Ames. Scientists and engineers are working on a wide variety of projects related to manned and unmanned space travel.

The agency also rents out space to the California Air National Guard and other military units, as well as private outfits like Singularity University and Google.

So is Google Building a Modern Dirigible at Moffett?

That was the buzz a few years ago, and you could see why, given that a) NASA Ames leased Hangar One and part of Moffett Field to Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures in 2014; and b) Hangar One is so big. Right? Why else would you want to lease that?

It's not a far-fetched idea. Dirigible development continues today by the U.S. military, for the U.S. military and for private outfits, too. There's a lot of interest in what can be accomplished for science, business and national security at the edge of the earth's atmosphere.

Nonetheless, Google spokespeople I spoke with insist they are not working on dirigibles at Moffett. They are working on balloons.

Project Loon sends networks of stratospheric balloons up into the air: 60 to 70,000 feet up, above where airplanes fly, below where satellites orbit. Those balloons were developed at Moffett Field.
Project Loon sends networks of stratospheric balloons into the air: 60,000 to 70,000 feet up, above where airplanes fly, below where satellites orbit. Those balloons were developed at Moffett Field. (Courtesy of Project Loon)

Alphabet, Google's parent company, owns a number of subsidiaries, including Project Loon, which employs a network of stratospheric balloons to deliver internet connectivity to far-flung places.

"We do that with stratospheric balloons," says operations program manager Nick Kohli, who also likes to call himself Loon's "global balloon concierge." Basically, he organizes balloon launches, keeping them up in the air, and then collecting them when they come down to earth, often more than 100 days after they first launch.

Up in "near space," he explains, above where airplanes fly, below where satellites orbit, the atmosphere is thin. There, the helium inside Loon’s polyethylene balloons expands, and the balloons, which look like jellyfish at ground level, expand to the size of "two tennis courts, laid end to end."

Moffett’s Hangar Two, one of three giant hangars on the property, was a handy place to conduct early tests. "It’s a nice, big space that you can shield from the wind and so that you can inflate these balloons to full size, to be able to see how they take shape, just as if we were in the stratosphere," Kohli says.

The airfield is pretty handy, too. "Moffett’s one of the longest open runways that’s around. It was designed for huge aircraft. You really have to struggle to find places where you can see line of sight for that long."

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