Working on a project last week, I had lots of time to reflect about many subjects. As I sat in a nice shiny new building the thoughts started to grow in my mind, and I started to think how a simple structure can be so overlooked, when it played such an important role in the world of aviation.
My home here in Aerotech is called “High Desert Hangar Stories,” and that word hangar started in France many years ago, halfway around the world when aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot crashed his plane near a farm and moved the wreckage to a metal cow pen to keep it out of the weather as he worked on it. Soon after, he contacted a company that would build him three steel hangars because he was so impressed with the function and durability of that first steel hangar.
Sure, the Wright brothers housed their planes before that, but they were just wooden sheds — more about working inside out of the weather more than a storage area.
So that word hangar was used by Louis as he took the French word Hangart or Haimgard which meant “an enclosure near a house” and went with it. It stuck, and today more than 100 years later, the word has become synonymous with aviation.
Here in the Antelope Valley, all its aviation history has relied heavily on those enclosures near our houses as the harsh conditions of our desert home are not the best for aircraft longevity. Along with that comes the unique aspect of the industry that builds, tests, and supports varied aircraft operations from civilian to military to the outreach into space.
Over many years of flying here in the Antelope Valley, we have seen the good old hangars come and go, but a few of those early ones still exist today. It’s amazing to think that all the survivors could probably fit inside the Lockheed hanger at Plant 42!
Thinking back to when that first Jenny touched down in Palmdale in a farmer’s field, storage of aircraft was not in high demand. For decades, visiting aircraft were pretty much tethered up like horses outside of a saloon, but with time came some early hangars.
Many felt that maybe it was at Muroc that the first hangar made its appearance, but in the 1930s that dry lakebed at East Camp was mostly sticks and tents. Those early birds lived life tethered down on the lakebed.
Looking back, I’m sure there were probably a few structures that were housing some planes around the Valley. In my opinion, the first real metal construction hanger to take up residence in the valley was at Carter Field that became known as Lancaster Airfield, located on the northwest corner of 10th street and Ave I in Lancaster.
Not long after that the flying conditions here in the Antelope Valley had small airfields popping up all over, and those hangars became a common sight around the valley. With the 1930s and the march into the 1940s, the aviation world was on fire. The industry was growing and expanding at an amazing rate and with a war looming off in the distance, construction of airfields and support facilities were spreading out across the Valley.
From Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club and her hangars, to the construction of War Eagle Field in Lancaster, the future of the Antelope Valley was being put in place. Palmdale Airport, Mojave Airport and the first major structures up at North Base at Muroc would define us for generations as the Aerospace Valley.
When the major aircraft companies saw the advantages of flight testing and building production, it wasn’t long until large hangers and operations popped up all across our valley and have become as common a sight as any American city skyline.
Not to be overlooked are the small operations which also grew, and for years old hangars were a common sight also much like the somewhat famous and much-loved facility in Quartz Hill that operated from the 1940s until its demise in the 1980s. That World War II surplus hanger was the heart and soul of Quartz Hill, and many people would use it as the landmark when giving directions.
At Muroc (Edwards Air Force Base) the arrival of those two priceless hangers at South Base installed around all the World War II support facilities had NACA and Douglas really committed to air operations out on that lakebed. The hangars started to pop up as quick as aircraft manufacturers could come up with new aircraft designs and projects. The hangars that are now at Edwards are as storied and famous as the aircraft they housed, and walking around inside of them, or just viewing from a distance, you can only imagine the thousands of stories that played out there as aircraft history was being made.
In Lancaster at the old War Eagle Field at 60th and Avenue I, three of those World War II hangers still survive, and I have been blessed to tour inside and take in the spirit of what they witnessed when America was fully committed to a world at war and how hundreds of cadets from here and around the world used it as their steppingstone to combat as they fought for the freedom of the world. Standing in the silence of one of those old survivors you can almost hear the pneumatic tools as the overnight crews of civilians worked tirelessly to make sure come daybreak that aircraft where ready for the never-ending missions of cadets in training.
Editorial restrictions keep me from sharing many more stories of locations, and I haven’t even touched on the amazing operations at Plant 42 and how a simple 1930s era hanger still stands as the cornerstone of generations of aircraft and support history.
So today, we face many different challenges when it comes to those “enclosures near a house” as it was known back in the early days. Aircraft need a safe harbor from the elements, and that goes for all generations of aircraft. If planes are not being constantly cared for, they will over time become a victim of decay.
Of course, that is also a problem– housing in a hangar requires a hangar; they are not small and not cheap. Even though the current generation of aircraft are housed properly, the historical aircraft find it difficult to find the love they need in an indoor, safe environment, and as a historian, that is a hard aspect to stomach.
We love to save our winged history, but I’m also one that feels we also need to find ways to save the structures that are the binding of the book that surrounded the stories. Just the thought that those old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and Douglas hangers could not have been utilized with all that history taking place in them because of red tape and cost is heartbreaking. I was always one who felt that finding ways and answers don’t require any more effort than starting over, and when it comes to history — starting over should not be an option. “If there is a will there is a way.”
Time to put this article in the Hangar until next time, Bob out …