October 30, 2003
The terms airships, blimps, dirigibles, aerostats, and LTA (lighter than air) are mostly interchangeable. During the war the navy used airships to search for enemy subs. Naval Air Station Tillamook was home to Squadron ZP-33 and its 8 K-class ships.
With hangars needed and steel going to manufacture planes and ships the only alternative was to use timber. Each required approximately 2.5-million board feet of wood, usually Oregon Douglas Fir. Of these 17 hangars only 7 currently remain. Built mostly in pairs, the second at this site burned in spectacular fashion in 1992. The foundation and the massive supports for the hangar door system remains. Nearby is the pad from where the craft were launched.
This surviving hangar is an overwhelmingly immense space: 1,072-feet-long by 206-feet-wide by 192-feet-tall, and has a footprint of about 7-acres. In fact, this is the world's largest free span wooden building. It's like standing in a Cathedral with a nave that stretches on and on and up.
None of the 252-foot balloons remain, and the station was decommissioned in 1948. Now a museum with some fascinating exhibits covering the history of the station and those serving there, including a section of balloon skin you are invited to touch. This feels like I imagine shark skin to feel -- for what that's worth. There are display cases with photos and the memorabilia of those stationed here. The engine room still holds the large turbine used to fill and empty the balloon shells of 425,000 cubic feet of helium.
The museum has a good collection of planes which include: Spitfire, Messerschmidt, F-14a Tomcat, a F4U-7 Corsair, and, most recently, a MiGg-17. Among the highlights of the plane collection for me were one of the red-tailed P-51 Mustangs flown by the Tuskegee Airmen and a J2F-6 Duck, the latter being a strange configuration of plane/boat. Also you'll find some trainer cockpits you can climb into: pretend to fly and have your photo taken by a traveling companion. And there’s still more to see, including a smallish privately-made blimp, an aerostat, with a friendly alien waving from its side.
There's a gift shop with some unique items, like a retro deck of playing cards teaching W.W.II plane spotting -- how to recognize various aircraft, and a cafe done up in retro forties/fifties.
The word blimp, by the way, is said to have originated as a description of the sound made when one thumps (middle finger off thumb in a flicking motion) the side of one of the balloons.
Open: 10am-5pm, except Thanksgiving, Christmas. Cafe: 10am-4pm.
Admission: $9.50, (65+) $8.50, (13-17) $5.50, (7-12) $2, under 7 free.
Location: 2-miles south of Tillamook on Highway 101.
Contact: 503-842-1130, 503-842-3054
From journal In and Around Tillamook, on the Oregon Coast