Ghost blimps haunt a humongous hangar at the Tillamook Air Museum
Built to house patrol blimps in the early '40s, Hangar B is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Now it's home to this quirky Oregon museum.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Once home to a squadron of patrol blimps, Hangar B of Naval Air Station Tillamook now houses Oregon's Tillamook Air Museum, with a quirky collection of classic aircraft. The star of the show, however, is the massive hangar itself. It has a 7-acre (2.8-hectare) footprint and stands over 15 stories tall. Amazingly, it's made entirely of wood, and in fact it's one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.
Built in the early 1940s, Hangar B dates from a time when the military used blimps and other airships in a variety of roles, including marine patrols. The K-class, first introduced in the late 1930s, hunted submarines with a variety of then-state-of-the-art technologies.
With metal rationed for other uses, the hangar needed to store the huge airships was constructed almost entirely of wood. Multiple delays, including inclement weather, dragged out construction for months. A sister hangar, Hangar A, was completed afterward and only took a few weeks. It burned down in 1992.
NAS Tillamook was decommissioned after World War II ended. Hangar B remained. Today the Tillamook Air Museum's collection of propeller and jet aircraft largely sit inside. The one aircraft outside, the big Mini Guppy cargo aircraft could still easily fit inside. Here's a look at Hangar B and aircraft that once and now call this incredible building home.
Blimps then, Guppies now at the Tillamook Air Museum
Route 6 weaves its way up and over the Coast Range from Portland to the Pacific Ocean, and overnight snow has left the pass a sleety, wet mess as the plows clear slush and drop sand. Google calls out from my phone to turn, but it needn't have bothered: I'd caught sight of the massive Hangar B in the distance.
I arrive shortly after the museum opens, but I'm not the only one here. Airplane hangars are almost always huge buildings, but Hangar B is something else. Not only over 1,000 feet (300 meters) long, but it's made almost entirely of wood.
I enter the museum and I'm simultaneously awed and disappointed. On one hand, there are very few aircraft, and the cavernous space is quite dimly lit. More than half the museum's aircraft are kept in a brightly lit tent, but that's not immediately apparent. After the hangar itself, I'm most interested in the Mini Guppy, stationed beyond the massive hangar doors. I step out to clearing skies, offering some excellent photo opportunities. The Mini Guppy, the youngest and smallest of the Guppy family of transports, is accessible, unlike the Super Guppy I saw at the Pima Air and Space Museum.
As I walk back inside, I can't help but think of the window in time that led to this building being built.
K-class patrol blimps
For decades, the US Navy used non-rigid airships, aka blimps, for maritime patrol. Their slow speeds and long endurance lent them to fleet and convoy escort duties that would have been far harder for traditional aircraft.
The K-class, first flown in 1938, became one of the most successful patrol blimps. Over 130 were built and were in use during WWII and well into the 1950s. Most were powered by Pratt and Whitney Wasp radials, for a max speed of 78 mph (125 km/h). Patrols often lasted 24 hours, but even longer flights were possible.
The 40-foot (12m) gondola, or control car, was cramped, holding up to 10 men but with no dedicated bathroom. The K-class's threat to enemy submarines was mostly via their ability to spot subs at a distance far greater than surface ships, either visually or with radar or magnetic anomaly detectors. However, they carried a .50-caliber machine gun, and most carried multiple depth charges.
Naval Air Station Tillamook was home to a squadron of K-class blimps, with Hangar B built to house them. Though larger than previous patrol airships and Goodyear Blimps, the K-class was small enough for a relatively small ground crew and the ability to use a mobile mooring mast, something larger airships couldn't.
Strictly taken as an air museum, Tillamook is a little light on aircraft. There are some gems, though, like the Mini Guppy and several unique aircraft found within the hangar-inside-a-hangar tent. As an architecture nerd, marveling at the wooden wonder of Hangar B was well worth the trip. Perhaps not enough to justify a visit to western Oregon by itself, but the mac and cheese I had at nearby Tillamook Creamery nearly was, and both are just a short drive from the fantastic Evergreen Air and Space Museum (tour of that coming soon) in McMinnville, Oregon.
All in all, a fascinating look at a rare type of building, with some cool planes thrown in. If Tillamook is a bit too far for you, check out the gallery above.