Rides & Destinations: The Tillamook Air Museum

Take in the Tillamook Air Museum by way of the Oregon Coast Highway for a full day of exhibits and riding.

Tillamook Air Museum

Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon.

Photo by Joe Berk

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What: Tillamook Air Museum, Tillamook, Oregon. It’s an interesting display of military aviation from a period when our skies were patrolled by U.S. Navy blimps. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $9.50 for adults with discounts for military, seniors, children, and groups of 10 or more.
How to Get There:
Take the Oregon Coast Highway (US 101) from either the north or the south (it’s one of America’s best rides). The museum is just a few minutes south of Tillamook on the east side of the road. You can’t miss it.
Best Kept Secrets:
Try the Air Base Café’s burger (you won’t be disappointed), and don’t miss seeing pieces of the original Hindenburg dirigible on display in the wartime artifacts area.
Avoid:
Missing Tillamook. It’s an interesting little town.
More Info:
tillamookair.com, nps.gov/nr/travel/aviation/usb.htm, 5000 Miles At 8000 RPM
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Nestled along the Oregon Coast Highway (featured in Destinations in the September/October 2014 issue of MC), the Tillamook Naval Air Museum is just a few minutes south of Tillamook (where the cheese comes from), and both the destination and the ride to it are impressive. 

In 1941, America was at war and our coasts were vulnerable to attack and infiltration by submarine. The U.S. deployed blimps to counter that threat. The U.S. Navy’s K-class airships were huge, efficient and deadly. The airships were more than 200 feet long, and they carried both depth charges and machine guns. At the war’s outset, the need for airships and a place to base them was urgent, and America rapidly built 10 bases for its blimp fleet. Naval Air Station Tillamook rose from an empty field 4 miles south of Tillamook to an operational air base in less than a year. The new airfield had two monstrous hangars, each housing up to eight airships. The second hangar went up in just 27 days. NAS Tillamook had anti-submarine patrol responsibilities covering the Washington, Oregon and California coastal regions. Naval Air Station Lakehurst fulfilled a similar mission on the East Coast, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s where the Hindenburg went down in 1937.

As a guy old enough to remember seeing Navy K-class airships on patrol, I can tell you those silver giants hanging in the sky were impressive. They had a 2,000-mile range and they could stay airborne for days. When World War II ended, the use of lighter-than-air aviation for anti-submarine duties ended shortly thereafter, and NAS Tillamook was decommissioned in 1948. It didn’t stay down for long, though.

After serving as an active duty base for five years, Oregon’s huge lumber industry moved in, and three separate lumber companies operated out of Tillamook’s two hangars from 1949 to 1982. In 1984, Wren Aircraft initiated Cessna airplane production in Hangar A. When Wren moved out, local farmers used the building for storing hay. It burnt down in 1992. In 1992, the Port of Tillamook started a small museum in remaining Hangar B. Today, the museum holds interesting wartime artifacts, approximately 20 aircraft (including a Guppy, an A-7 Corsair, an F-14 Tomcat and a MiG-17), several military vehicles, the Air Base Café, and a gift shop. Hangar B, housing the museum, is as interesting as any of the exhibits it contains. It’s huge. When I visited, the lady in the ticket booth made sure I knew it was the world’s largest wooden structure. America needed steel for the war effort in 1942, so the Navy specified wood for these structures. Hangar B required 2 million board feet of lumber. More than 50 Oregon lumber businesses participated in building NAS Tillamook.

You can take in the Tillamook Air Museum and its exhibits in about three hours, but like most of our destinations, the destination is only part of the story. The other is the ride to get there along the Oregon Coast Highway. It’s one of the world’s great roads! — Joe Berk