Tillamook Air Museum: Preserving the History of Airships in World War II

A K-Class blimp operated by the US Navy. (Photo: USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Airships played a valuable role in WWI, acting as bombers to surveillance craft. However, most countries had phased out their use of airships once the Great War ended as they were no longer needed in most aerial combat scenarios due to advancements in aircraft. In addition, the hydrogen which fueled many of these airships was quite dangerous.

The Hindenburg, a hydrogen-filled commercial airship, exploded in New Jersey in the late 1930s. This incident helped bring an end to an era, except in one country, the United States. All due to a monopoly on a certain gas

The hydrogen used to give airships lift was dangerously combustible, with the better alternative being inert gas helium. Unfortunately for most of the world, the United States had a near-monopoly on all of the world’s accessible helium. This allowed the U.S. to continue use of airships well past the age when the rest of the world retired theirs.

Growth in WWII

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States found itself thrust into war with little to protect America’s coasts from the lurking threat of German U-boats (submarines).

Starting in the early 1940s, the United States Navy commissioned a fleet of K-class helium-filled blimps. These blimps were roughly 250 feet long and powered by Pratt & Whitney or Wright engines. They were also armed with one to two 50 caliber machine guns and four 350 pound depth charges.

In addition to weaponry, these airships were filled with various equipment such as radar and magnetic anomaly machines needed to detect submarines, their primary purpose.

Airship Diagram: Tillamook Air Museum (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Hemal Gosai)

Anti-Submarine Warfare

The airships were quickly put to use guarding the coastline and conducting convoy escorts.  The K-class airships had a range of nearly 2,000 miles and could stay aloft for almost 40 hours.

K-class airships patrolled millions of square miles hunting for submarines. Once a submarine was located the blimp would then radio in the location to a convoy of surface ships.

Airship Hangars

The Navy built huge wooden hangars to house these airships along the East and West coasts. Today, only a handful remain. One of the most notable is Hangar B  in Tillamook, Oregon. Hangar B was built in 1943 to house eight blimps for anti-submarine patrol.

It is the largest free-standing, clear-span wooden structure in the world, covering more than seven acres. It’s over 1,000 feet long, 296 feet wide, and 15 stories high.

Interior of Hangar B in Tillamook, Oregon (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Hemal Gosai)

This hangar, along with many others, dotted across the country provided as bases for the Navy airship fleet.

Map of WWII Blimp Bases at Tillamook Air Museum (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Hemal Gosai)

While airships have now officially fallen out of favor, several of these large bases still remain as a testament to the efforts by thousands of men to help protect the nation.

Hangar B in Tillamook Oregon is one of the few remaining hangars and is now a museum open to the public.

Hemal Gosai

Hemal Gosai

Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.
Hemal Gosai