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USA: Oregon – Tillamook Air Museum

Tillamook Air Museum is located in a rural setting close to the Oregon Pacific coast. In World War II this was the site of a Naval base used to deploy K Class airships (blimps) across the Pacific ocean to detect enemy ships and submarines.

Tillamook Air Museum is located close to the Pacific Coast in Northern Oregon in a former WWII Naval Air Base. This base was In 1942, the U.S. Navy began construction of 17 wooden hangars to house K-class airships that would be used for anti-submarine patrol and convoy escort. Two of these hangars were built at Naval Air Station Tillamook, which was commissioned in December 1942 to serve the Oregon-Washington-California coastal areas.

With WW II well underway, construction of the two hangars was rushed to completion. Hangar “B” was the first one built and was completed in August of 1943. Hangar  “A” which was destroyed in a 1992 fire, was completed in only 27 working days! Amazingly, there were no serious injuries or deaths on the whole project.

Stationed at NAS  Tillamook was Squadron ZP-33 with a complement of eight K-Class airships. The K-ships were 252 feet long, 80 feet in diameter, and filled with 425,000 cu. ft. of Helium. With a range of 2,000 miles and an ability to stay aloft for three days, they were well suited for coastal patrol and convoy escort. With the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, and the Japanese submarine threat eliminated, Naval Air Station Tillamook was reduced to functional status. In 1948, Naval Air Station Tillamook was decommissioned for good.

Hanger B at Tillamook today - now the site of the Air Museum - Tillamook, Oregon
Hanger B at Tillamook today - now the site of the Air Museum

The Museum is set in the Oregon countryside so you pass so it’s presence is incongruous with it surrounding although there is a small industrial area close by which I image uses some of the old buildings and infrastructure of when this was a working airfield. It is not until you pull up outside the hanger that you get a real sense of the scale of the building itself. 

There is not much left of the airship heritage at the museum. There is the ‘Pump Room” which is what is left of the helium production system that was used to fill the blimps. Apart from that, there are a few static displays and photographs from the 1940s. 

Tillamook Air Museum Helium Pump - Tillamook, Oregon
Tillamook Air Museum Helium Pump

The K-Class airships were not the largest airships ever built, being 252 feet in length but they were still sizeable. These airships were ‘blimps’, which meant they had no rigid infrastructure, so they fully deflated down to their canvas. The largest airships built such as the Hindenburg (804ft) and the Akron (785ft) had a wooden skeleton inside.

A chart showing the size of the K Class airships stationed at Tillamook compared to other classes of airships
A chart showing the size of the K Class airships stationed at Tillamook compared to other classes of airships

For me, the most interesting and striking part of a visit to the Tillamook Air Museum is Hanger B itself. It is about 1000 feet (305m) long, 300 feet (90m) wide and 200 feet (61m) tall. Amazingly, it’s made entirely of wood, and in fact, it’s one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. The lattice construction of the support struts is beautiful to behold. First time I saw it took my breath away. One of the issues of wood as a construction material is its combustibility, a flaw that led to the demise of Hanger B’s sister building Hanger A which was built in the same year in just twenty-seven days was destroyed by fire in 1992.

Hanger B at Tillamook Air Museum, Oregon
Hanger B at Tillamook Air Museum

We first went to the Tillamook Air Museum around eight years ago and things have changed a lot. Before 2013 the museum also exhibited the WWII aircraft collection owned by Jack Erickson which was later moved to the Erickson Aircraft Collection museum in Madras, Oregon. So, today the huge space of the hanger looks somewhat empty – it takes a lot to fill. At the back of the hanger, there are now trailers and motorhomes so I assume that they are renting space for storage to generate some incomes!

Lighting is a big issue in such a voluminous dark space, so they have built a canopy inside the hanger to display some of the smaller exhibits.

Inside the main hanger, there are a number of different aircraft on exhibit including an F-14 Tomcat, a Corsair A-7 and an Alenia C-27J Spartan is not an aircraft you see often in museums. It uses engines and some other parts from the larger-but-visually-similar C-130.

Grumman F-14 Tomcat - Tillamook Air Museum, Oregon
Grumman F-14 Tomcat
Corair A7-II Tillammok Airmuseum
Corair A7-II
Alenia C-27J Spartan - Tillamook Air Museum, Oregon
Alenia C-27J Spartan

Beyond their aircraft and associated exhibits, there is a collection of other transportation including a restored steam train and some firetrucks. I assume these have been bought in to fill the space left by the removal of the Erickson collection. A little bit weird but nonetheless interesting.

Tillamook Air Museum Oregon, Fire Truck

Outside the hanger, itself is a larger aircraft – the Mini-Guppy. The aircraft was originally delivered to Pan American Airways in 1949 as a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser (prior to its conversion), which it flew until 1960 when it was returned to Boeing and sold to Santa Barbara-based Aero-Spacelines in 1963. Converted to a Mini-Guppy, it first flew in 1967. After years of commercial use and ferrying such interesting items as NASA’s Pioneer 10 Spacecraft (used to explore Jupiter and the Asteroid Belt) and Goodyear’s Europa Airship, it was purchased by Erickson Air-Crane in 1988 and used for the transport of large Air-Crane helicopters until 1994 when it was acquired by the museum and retired.

Mini Guppy

In summary … 

  • Tillamook is a way out there – but it is a beautiful part of the Oregon coast and the close by creamery is worth a visit (unless like us you are vegan)
  • The history of the airship base here is fascinating and the hanger which housed the airships is amazing
  • The collection of aircraft is disappointing. Some of their best exhibits were a private collection that was moved elsewhere in Oregon. So, they are re-building and there is some way to go. But a visit just to see the hanger is worth it!

Planning your visit

The Tillamook Air Museum is 75 miles west of Portland, Oregon via Highways 26 and 6 which takes about 1 hour 30 minutes by car.

Best time to visit Tillamook

Worried about tourists flocking or closing hours of Tillamook while planning your trip? The best time to visit Tillamook would be a time when you can completely soak in the experience and not worry about such hassles. The weather of Tillamook is favorable along with the best of activities during this particular time in Tillamook. If you are thinking about when to go to Tillamook then, come visit Tillamook at it’s best time where you can make a memorable experience without having to worry about small issues.

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