May 30, 2013

Photo Essay: Marine Corp Air Station & North Hangar, Tustin - Closed (Updated for 2023, North Hangar Destroyed By Fire)

[Last updated 11/16/23 6:02 PM PT—Added information about November 7 fire and destruction of North Hangar]

"Where can't I go?" I asked the Orange County Parks ranger, stationed by the south doors of the North Hangar.

"You can go pretty much anywhere," he said, shrugging. "You can't get into the buildings, but that's pretty much it."

"OK, so I just won't hop any fences..." I said, as I waved and set off on my exploration.

And although it's currently owned by the Navy, the former Marine Corp Air Station - built in 1942, and then known as Lighter Than Air Station Santa Ana - is embarking on a groundbreaking transformation courtesy of Orange County and the City of Tustin. [Update 11/161/23—That transformation still hasn't happened.]

And what's better - OC Parks is inviting the community (and looky-loos like me willing to drive a couple of hours) to come check the closed, once-restricted property out.

Slated to be a transformed into new regional park (as well as other land uses, both residential and commercial), the former MCAS is an 1500 acre parcel of land in Tustin that includes included two huge blimp hangars, and a total of 200 buildings, seven of which OC Parks plans to adaptively reuse.

Of course, the plan to turn the MCAS into a regional park has been in the works since 1963.

Since being shuttered by the federal government, a few portions at a time between 1991-9, the base itself hasn't been used for much of anything...

...its structures predictably crumbling and peeling.

Of course, the entire base isn't abandoned per se, and not entirely vacant.

Some of its buildings are being used guessed

The only recent visitors appear to have been the birds.

Like any other military base, the MCAS was a full-service, self-contained community of non-commissioned officers and their wives who lived and worked there...

...ate and drank there...

...and had children there.

As many as 4500 once lived there, and the base employed nearly 5000 military personnel and civilians.

Primarily a helicopter base, the MCAS Tustin was a major training facility on the West Coast, playing a critical role in wartime operations as recent as Desert Storm.

Building 171 was once the center of aircraft operations, with its historic five-story control tower...

...which is slated to be preserved (despite being built at what is considered a "late" date of 1964).

Other buildings won't be so lucky...

...though even a couple of non-historic buildings (a garage, classrooms, the crash rescue building) are being proposed for adaptive reuse.

There are some signs of wildlife that have returned to the base - whose construction laid giant concrete slabs upon agricultural land - including a few cottontails that appeared at dusk...

...and, of course, the birds that love to invade abandoned buildings.

The pièce de résistance of the base is the historic North Blimp Hangar (Hangar #1, which burned down in a fire that ignited on 11/7/23 and is currently in the process of being simultaneously extinguished and dismantled)...

...Building 28...

...whose construction was completed after nine months in 1943.

This hangar actually has been in use since the base's closure in the '90s...

...mostly for blimp maintenance and new blimp construction (e.g. Goodyear) ...

...and, of course, as a soundstage for movies (e.g. The Hindenberg), TV shows (JAG, The X-Files) and commercials.

The hangar is massive.

Photos don't do it justice.

Both hangars are one of the largest wood structures in the U.S., and the world's largest unsupported timber-constructed buildings...

...made primarily out of Oregon Douglas Fir...

...with nearly 300,000 square feet of floor space each.

That makes them three football fields long, and one football field wide, each.

Both hangars are 18 stories high.

But, based on current plans, only one hangar may survive: Hangar #1. [Plans are unsure for Hangar #2, which was not damaged in the November 2023 fire.]

The park site is only slated to occupy 84.5 of the available 1500 acres on the MCAS property, and before anybody moves in or children start playing there, the contaminated groundwater plumes (largely as a result of seepage of fuel and solvents once used there) need to be addressed. [Update: This is one of the concerns of the fire, with toxic fumes spewing out and the distribution of contaminated debris.]

And then, the MCAS Tustin can be transformed into the dream development of the City of Tustin, Tustin Legacy.

We shall see.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hughes Aircraft Company Campus

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  1. I was stationed there in 1967-1968, 1970, 1979-1982. What a great place to be in the shape it is now.

  2. Stationed MCAS Tustin 1990-2000. Best duty station in the world. All the benefits of the military, yet the instant you walk out the front gate (Moffit Drive and Redhill Blvd) you were back to being a civilian. So many great men, so many great families were there. Chapel got full every Sunday. Had an awesome Child Development Center and truly the base was a family. That base along with El Toro are gone way too soon and the community has only gotten worse ever since. It was a wrong decision to close that base down. Wrong for the community, wrong for the Marines, and wrong for peace at home and abroad. Big mistake.