What are the most important buildings in OC—the most historic, architecturally significant, and the most beautiful? What built spaces and public places make us unique? These are the questions that Blue Door Magazine explores as we tour Iconic OC.
The two World War II-era blimp hangars in Tustin are arguably Orange County’s most striking and superlative structures. Built in 1942-1943, they remain two of the largest freestanding wooden structures on the planet, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the hangars enclose the largest covered, unobstructed open space of any structures in the world.
The Tustin base was commissioned in 1942 as the Santa Ana Lighter-than- Air Base and eventually became Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Tustin. It would have a rich military history over those six decades, and be best known for its massive, iconic blimp hangars, which the Navy called Buildings 28 and 29.
The hangars were designed by Arsham Amirikian, Principal Engineer of the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks. Amirikian, an Armenian immigrant, was known for innovative designs and creative construction methods of large structures using timber, reinforced concrete, and steel. Designing and building the Tustin hangars would be challenging enough today. Accomplishing it in wartime, on a hyper-accelerated schedule and with a nearly all-wood design, put the hangars on the Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks of the 20th Century list.
In January 1942, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was on high alert for an attack by Japan on the Pacific Coast, or by Germany on the Atlantic Coast. Developing a network of “Lighter Than Air” blimp bases to patrol both coastlines became a top priority.
The War Department had identified two possible base locations on the Irvine Ranch in a sparsely populated (about 130,000 people) rural agricultural area called Orange County. One was at the mouth of a canyon called Cañada del Toro, would become MCAS El Toro. The other would become Naval Air Station Tustin and eventually, MCAS Tustin. James Irvine accepted $100,000 for both the Tustin and the El Toro sites, the equivalent of about $20 per acre. Construction of the Tustin LTA facility began on April 1, 1942; it was operational in just over 6 months. The hangars and support buildings were completed in just one year, in October 1943, at a total cost of $10,062,482.08.
Airship patrols along the California coast were conducted 24 hours a day from the LTA bases at Tustin and Moffett Field. The airship fleet performed far beyond the War Department and the Navy’s expectations in terms of both reliability and effectiveness—with 89,000 escort missions through submarine-infested waters for ships loaded with troops, equipment, and supplies. By 1944, just two years after the Tustin hangars were completed, the need for blimp patrols and escort missions along both coasts was fading fast. In 1943, the number of ship sinkings dropped to 65 from the 1942 high of 454, then to just eight in 1944. The Tustin facility continued to serve as an LTA base until 1949, when it was decommissioned.
After World War II, MCAS Tustin served as a major facility for Marine helicopter training and operations on the Pacific Coast and played a critical role in major U.S. military operations from 1942 to 1992, including Korea, Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm, which were heavily dependent on helicopter operations. The hangars were entered into the National Register as a historic district on April 3, 1975, both for their historic connection with World War II and other conflicts and their status as two of the largest wooden structures in the world.
In addition to being architectural and aviation icons, the mammoth hangars served as important cultural resources, both while the base was an active military installation and after it closed. On July 3, 1999, MCAS Tustin was officially closed, 57 years after the base and its iconic hangars arose from the farm fields of Orange County.
The MCAS Tustin hangars remain landmarks and symbols for the generations of OC residents who worked in the defense industry, and the thousands of men and women who served at the Tustin base.
Thank you for this memory of a time not that long gone. One of my strongest memories is of my family picking my dad up at the gate at El Toro upon his return from Vietnam. There were also horse stables and I would often go horseback riding there. An awesome base in it’s time and place.