Report by Adam Estes
In the early morning hours of November 7, 2023, a fire started inside one of two World War II era blimp hangars on the former site of Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, California. This is Hangar 1 (North Hangar, Building 28). Since then, the fire has destroyed much of the 81-year-old wooden structure, leaving nothing but a shell behind.
Local media report authorities were notified of the fire between 12:30 am and 1:00 am local time. Firefighting efforts were carried out both on the ground, with local firefighters, and also with helicopters: notably a dedicated Chinook helitanker provided by Coulson Aviation. Due to the risk of falling debris, firefighters decided to let the fire burn itself out and remained on standby following daybreak.
The QRF took immediate action to support the Tustin Marine Air Station hangar fire last night. Watch as one of Coulson’s helitankers makes a nighttime drop. #coulsonaviation #ch47 #aerialfirefighting pic.twitter.com/pMyBdB6oDz— Coulson Aviation (@CoulsonAviation) November 7, 2023
The crackling of wooden beams paired with plumes of black and grey smoke billowing from the hangar could be seen and heard as the fire worked its way up from the hangar’s south side to its north, destroying the eastward-facing side, while the concrete frames for the massive doors remain standing. Tiles, ash, and even asbestos insulation were carried across nearby Valencia Ave into residential areas.
Many came to watch throughout the day, marking the end of a reminder of the region’s local history amid ongoing housing and residential developments.
The two blimp hangars have long been a part of the landscape of south Orange County since 1942 when they were built by the US Navy to house maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare blimps. The hangars were originally part of Naval Air Station (NAS) Santa Ana, established at the same time as nearby Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro. While El Toro was used for conventional airplane operations, NAS Santa Ana served as a lighter-than-air (LTA) station, complete with seven circular concrete mooring pads as well as runways for additional airplanes. Each hangar could accommodate six fully inflated blimps at once.
After WWII, NAS Santa Ana was decommissioned in 1949 before being reactivated in 1951 during the Korean War, as Marine Corps Air Facility (MCAF) Santa Ana, becoming the United States’ first installation dedicated to helicopter operations. The facility would be renamed Marine Corps Air Station MCAS Santa Ana in 1969, before receiving its final name of MCAS Tustin in 1978. As the Cold War began to wind down, however, both MCAS Tustin and El Toro were seen as no longer necessary and were decommissioned. Both installations were shut down in 1999, with El Toro being redeveloped into the Orange County Great Park and new housing developments, while the two blimp hangars saw intermittent activity between long periods of closure.
The two blimp hangars were used by Hollywood filmmakers and in TV shows such as ‘Pearl Harbor’, ‘JAG’, and ‘The X-Files’, as well as occasional storage and maintenance facilities for blimps. A notable extra was being used for the experimental cargo airship ‘Dragon Dream’, though this aircraft was damaged during a partial collapse of the north side Hangar 1 on October 7, 2013. Until the fire, Hangar 1 had been left derelict since the roof collapsed, while Hangar 2 (South Hangar, Building 29) remains standing.
We will provide further developments as they become available.
Pictures taken last night.