From many miles away, it is the gargantuan size that draws visitors near:
Is it the eleven acres of arched roof?
Perhaps the hundred-foot-tall letters boldly printed on its side?
Or maybe it’s the a-4 jet perched on a pole to signal that they’ve arrived?
Regardless of how they find it, the size is: Massive! Enormous! Colossal!
Those exclamations and more are on everyone’s lips when they are face to face with the Tillamook Air Museum just off U.S Highway 101.
The museum is housed in the largest freestanding wooden structure in the world, a former blimp hangar.
The hangar continues to inspire visitors by its sheer scale.
Imagine: three Titanics (yes, the famous cruise liner) or six football fields lined up sideline to sideline could fit inside this mammoth building.
Also amazing is the fact that nine other structures like this were built along the coastal perimeter of the United States in the early days of World War II.
The west coast was vulnerable to enemy attack, especially from submarines, so a series of defense plans was quickly drafted as the nation mobilized.
In the sleepy coastal town of Tillamook, Oregon, located just six miles from the Pacific Ocean, the flat landscape surrounded by a semicircle of gently rolling hills offered the perfect terrain for the US Navy’s vision for lighter-than-air blimps.
Eight 252-foot-long, helium-filled k-class airships were based inside the hangar (a total of 138 airships were built during the war).
The crew of eight shared a forty-two-foot-long gondola mounted to the underside of the blimp’s envelope. This cabin was roughly the size of a greyhound bus, and a pilot, two copilots, and a crew of seven manned it
Patrol duty took crews on the lookout for enemy submarines from northern California across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island.
As Christian Gurling, the Tillamook Air Museum’s curator, described, “Everything was prefabricated, so the guys just had to get up and bolt everything together – bit working under those conditions it’s mind boggling – and I explain that nothing of this size or materials had ever been built before in human history.”
As you stand inside this hulk of a hangar (more than seven acres of land enclosed within), gaze up nearly two hundred feet to the arched roof and six-inch by fourteen-inch beam support system and realize that about three million board feet of lumber (enough to build 350 three-bedroom homes) were required for this construction.
This level of service to country is recalled in the impressive exhibits of old photos, written accounts, and other artifacts of the officers and crew who served here. They provide a well-researched, detailed account of a unique chapter in U.S. history.
Another patriotic salute to military service inhabits the giant museum, for the Tillamook Air Museum also whisks visitors back to an era when air battles were waged over the skies of Europe and the Pacific, the time of Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Mustangs, Corsairs, and the like--powerful prop-driven aircraft.
Inside the museum, that era lives on, more than fifty years later, as the museum staff strives to teach visitors the history of military aviation.
Gurling added, “To see this magnificent facility, to see these aircraft here – it’s a little bit jaw dropping at first…and then tell folks these aircraft fly, their eyes really light up.”
He’s right - during summer months the museum frequently flies their planes. But anytime it is a thrill for visitors who can watch, touch and explore one of the most astounding places in the state.