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A Reprieve for Air Museum

History: Lovingly tended by a volunteer staff, Moffett Field displays will be saved, with timely donations.

January 23, 2002|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — When the Naval Air Station at Moffett Field was slated for closure eight years ago, Carol Henderson vowed that she would not allow its storied past to be lost.

"I knew the Navy was leaving and I started going through everyone's office, putting yellow stickers on things, telling them I wanted all that stuff," said Henderson, a 77-year-old great-grandmother in red-white-and-blue sneakers. "I would go into dumpsters to rescue things I knew were important."

Henderson, a member of the Moffett Field Historical Society and the wife of a retired Navy man, collected photographs and uniforms, test equipment, flight gear and training manuals that now comprise the society's museum.

Squeezed into five crowded rooms within a cavernous, steel-framed hangar built in the 1930s to house giant dirigibles, the museum is home to about 60 years of military memorabilia and a library of books on Moffett Field and U.S. military history.

But it lacks a sprinkler system and other fire-safety equipment, and for that reason the museum was forced to close Jan. 11. With a shoestring budget and volunteer staff, the facility's future was anything but certain.

But last week two private donors, including Cisco Systems Inc. Chief Executive John Chambers, stepped up to save the little museum at the sprawling base that Henderson and her family once called home.

The U.S. Navy left Moffett Federal Airfield in 1994, and NASA took over its management. The property houses NASA's Ames Research Center, which develops information technology and aviation operations systems such as air traffic control technologies and is the agency's lead center for astrobiology research.

The base is also home to the 129th Division of the Air National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force, based at nearby Onizuka Air Station, maintains offices there. NASA is also developing a research park on the site where several universities will be able to collaborate.

The historical society was warned for three years that it had to bring the museum's safety system up to date or face eviction, said Ames spokeswoman Ann Hutchison. As NASA completes a new security perimeter around its own facilities, the rest of the base will be made more accessible to the public at the end of January.

"We anticipate a lot more people will be coming to the museum, so we really had to say these safety issues had to be dealt with right now," Hutchison said.

Henderson said the group tried to raise the money for the improvements by putting on an air show with another museum. The event was a debacle and the Moffett Field museum lost about $9,000, as much as its operating costs for a year.

As news of its impending closure spread, some people came to retrieve the artifacts they had lent to the museum. Then last week, Henderson ordered a sheet cake and called together her nearly two dozen volunteers. The society had received $160,000 to fund the needed improvements from the John and Lynn Chambers Foundation and the Seligman Family Foundation in San Francisco, she announced.

She has until April 15 to bring the museum up to code, after which it can reopen. Henderson doesn't know when the repairs will begin; the historical society is waiting to hear from NASA exactly what work must be done.

"I had a lot of sleepless nights" before the project was rescued, said Henderson, who came to Moffett Field with her husband in 1949, when he returned from the Berlin Airlift. "I thought about mortgaging my house because I knew I wasn't going to leave this museum."

A few cities from San Francisco to San Jose banded together to purchase the Moffett Field property for $276,679 in 1931, and then sold it to the Navy for $1. The air station was commissioned in 1933 and the first hangar, which now houses the museum, sheltered the dirigible USS Macon.

About 200 feet high and long enough to hold three football fields, the giant hangar is a Bay Area landmark, visible from U.S. 101. The museum's modest, windowless rooms are organized chronologically--an enthusiastic display of historic black-and-white photographs, somber Navy portraits, yellowed news clippings, even the passenger basket from a 1940s-era blimp.

One room is dedicated to the Macon, the 785-foot-long, 146-foot-high dirigible that went down in a storm off Point Sur, near Monterey, on Feb. 12, 1935. Two of its 83 crewmen were lost.

Without its dirigible, the Navy was done with Moffett Field for a while. It swapped the property with the Army until 1942, when the Navy took the station back as a blimp patrol headquarters for the West Coast during World War II, an era chronicled in the next room.

In 1950, the F3D Skynight jet arrived, the first night jet fighter in the military. Its first test flights were conducted at Moffett Field. During the Korean War, Moffett was a base for fighter jets that flew from Navy carriers in the Pacific, and a decade later it became the Pacific headquarters for all P-3 "Orion Hunter" anti-submarine aircraft.

One room displays women's uniforms, commemorating their service at Moffett Field, and another holds the museum's library. The sudden infusion of cash will buy the museum some time, but questions remain about its future.

The historical society's relationship with its landlord, NASA, has been rocky. And the hangar itself has had no repairs for about 10 years, said retired Navy Capt. Tom Spink, a regional vice president of the Assn. of Naval Aviation and a museum advocate.

"We need to go out and start getting a lot of money," Spink said. "They've put together a real nice collection at the museum, and we've got to keep our eye on the ball."

Information about the museum is available at its Web site, www.moffettfieldmuseum.org.

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