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Steve Emmons

The Biggest Big Deal in Orange County

June 02, 1985|STEVE EMMONS

I remember my father-in-law telling me about a fair he saw in Texas when he was a boy. They had laid a long track on the fairgrounds and had put a steam locomotive at each end. At the scheduled hour, they fired up the boilers and threw the throttles full open. By the time the locomotives met, they were going at terrific speeds. The crowd went wild. The crash was one of the most memorable events of his life, he said.

My first reaction was: What simple, naive people these were.

My second reaction was: I wish I'd seen that.

Sophisticated entertainment is very nice, but deep down in our Neander-souls, we are most impressed by the raw superlative. It's the difference between cafe diablo and a barn fire. The biggest or smallest, the fastest, meanest, strongest or tallest, seems to appeal to something inherent in us all, whether in Newport or New Guinea.

So then, what is the most awesome spectacle in Orange County?

Those now-and-then storm waves don't count, since they may not be there when you have visiting relatives to entertain. The local range of mountains is too squat, and the imitation mountain at Disneyland is, well, an imitation. Imitation anythings are disqualified.

We must turn to the man-made wonders, but even here the pickings are slim. Independence Hall at Knott's is a mere facsimile. The Navy's ammunition dump in Seal Beach, with its implication of nuclear warheads, is only potentially spectacular. The Crystal Cathedral is not bad. At least it's a superlative--the world's largest collection plate.

But there is something in Orange County that is genuinely colossal. There are actually two of them side by side--buildings--and they are big, really big. They are, in their way, the biggest.

You think an 18-story office building is big? You could fit a few inside these and have room left for a couple of Goodyear blimps. No kidding. The doors are so huge it takes electric motors five minutes to close them. The ceilings are so high that the rising air creates its own weather system. Now and then it rains inside. Really.

You can fly inside these buildings. A tethered hot-air balloon once gave rides in one. Parachutists have more than once asked to try out the buildings' inner spaces (but so far have not gained permission). A well-piloted 747 could zip right through with yards to spare.

These buildings are in Tustin and a common sight to motorists on the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa (nee Newport) freeways. From the freeway lanes they appear to be merely huge, since they are more than a mile away. Up close, they are literally awesome--so much so that they have been placed on the list of national landmarks.

They are the two enormous hangars at the Marine helicopter base in Tustin.

They were not built for helicopters; that would be like building a garage to hold your toothbrush. Inside these hangars, the largest helicopters in the nation look like matchbox toys in a trunk.

They were built in the early years of World War II to house 12 of the Navy blimps that were patroling the coast in search of enemy submarines. They held six blimps each--two files of three, one on top of the other! When you walk into one of these hangars, it is the height of that ceiling that makes your jaw drop.

Just how high is it? To perform his usual slam-dunk through a hoop mounted on this ceiling, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would have to be 135 feet, 6 inches tall. How wide is it? If O.J. Simpson received a punt at one wall and made it to the other, he'd be credited with a 99-yard runback.

How long is it? You could hear an entire 30-second commercial in the time it takes to drive through at 25 m.p.h. There are roughly 29.7 million cubic feet of space under this roof, enough room to hold more than 2 billion baseballs or more than 10 million sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or nearly $4 billion worth of Mr. Goodbars (totaling nearly 3 trillion calories).

It's all the more amazing because the whole thing is held up by wood. These hangars, along with their siblings in nine other locations around the country, are "the world's largest wooden arch-supported structures," the brochure says.

In 1942, when the hangars were built, steel for anything but ships and tanks was very hard to get. Consequently, the tremendous arches supporting the hangars' aluminum skins are made of timber, and they do it without the aid of posts. Not one post obstructs the 314,226 square feet of floor space, the equivalent of about 5 1/2 football fields. If you wanted to paint the ceiling, it would take 140,524 Times pages (about one Sunday edition) to cover that floor.

This is big-league big, the biggest "wow" Orange County has to offer. It doesn't cost a dime to get in, yet Disneyland has bigger crowds during a 4 a.m. hailstorm.

But if you come by on a Saturday morning, the base's officer of the day will take you through one of the hangars, show you some of the helicopters, take you through the base control tower and give you a crash crew demonstration. Kids get to try on the flame-resistant suits. Unless you're bringing 10 or more people, you don't have to call ahead. Just show up by 10 a.m. on any Saturday at the base's main gate in Tustin at Red Hill and Valencia avenues. The leisurely tour takes only about an hour and a half.

If you're not embarrassed by simple pleasures, you'll enjoy yourself. It will give you something new to talk about over wine and cheese that night.

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