Introduction to Moffett Field

A birds-eye view of the Moffett Field runways. Hangar 1 is on the left. Hangars 2 and 3 are on the right. The San Francisco Bay is in the distance.
Aerial photograph of Moffett Field, Dominic Hart, 2008. Courtesy NASA Ames Research Center Photograph Library Collection, photo no. ACD08-0105-015


Moffett Field is located in the heart of Silicon Valley in Santa Clara County, California. It is 10 miles north of San Jose and about 35 miles south of San Francisco. The City of Sunnyvale borders the site to the south and east. The City of Mountain View borders the site to the south and the west. The 2,354-acre property is adjacent to Highway 101 and the southwestern edge of the San Francisco Bay.

A map of the state of California identifying the location of Moffett Field adjacent to the San Francisco Bay.
California state map illustrating the location of Moffett Field
A map identifying the location of Moffett Field and the counties of Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa.
Map illustrating the location of Moffett Field and the surrounding counties in the region
A map identifying Moffett Field and Hangar 3, the San Francisco Bay, the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale, and the 101, 237, and 85 highways.
Site map illustrating the location of Hangar 3

Site Selection

Rear Admiral William A. Moffett of the U.S. Navy led a selection committee that considered 97 locations for the West Coast’s first Naval Air Station, which would serve as the home of the colossal USS Macon dirigible. Leaders in Southern California hoped that a 2,032-acre property on Kearny Mesa, 11 miles north of downtown San Diego, would be chosen. Northern California real estate agent, Laura Thane Whipple, knew that this was a transformative opportunity for her community. She identified an ideal site in Santa Clara County and created a strategic public-private alliance that convinced the federal government to build the base in the Bay Area.

The agricultural terrain selected for Naval Air Station Sunnyvale was originally the large village of Posolmi. The area was inhabited by the Ohlone, an indigenous people whose territory stretched from the San Francisco Bay through Monterey Bay to the lower Salinas Valley. In 1772, Spanish settlers, led by Juan Bautista de Anza, began building missions and presidios on the Ohlone’s land. The native population was forced to abandon its way of life, convert to Christianity, and work in the new Spanish developments. Following its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government began secularizing and redistributing the mission properties via large land grants. In 1844, Governor Manuel Micheltorena gave Lupe Yñigo a 1,700-acre parcel named Rancho Posolmi. Yñigo was an Ohlone by birth and was baptized at Mission Santa Clara. Following Yñigo’s death in 1864, his land was not passed to his heirs, but was instead patented to the Robert Walkinshaw family.

Whipple and her colleagues, William Wright of Mountain View and Rudolph Peterson of Sunnyvale, formed an effective coalition that included government officials and private citizens of Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Alameda Counties. They worked tirelessly to rally public support and skillfully brokered an option agreement to buy a contiguous 1,000-acre parcel of land, in the area formerly known as Rancho Yñigo, from its eight existing owners. On February 20, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a United States House of Representatives bill, sponsored by San Jose Congressman Arthur Free, authorizing the acceptance of the proposed Mountain View–Sunnyvale site and a $5 million budget for the construction of the expansive naval base. Using the money it raised throughout its successful three-year promotional campaign, Whipple’s team officially acquired their unified property for $476,065.90. On July 31, 1931, they transferred the valuable land to the U.S. Navy for the price of $1.

Lupe Yñigo wearing a suit and holding a long wooden pole tucked under his left arm. His right arm is resting on top of a round table covered with fabric.
Portrait of Lupe Yñigo, William J. Shew, 1852-1857. Courtesy Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections, photo no. 1.13.tiff
Laura Whipple wearing a dress, coat, and hat. She is standing beside 2 men in suits and a woman wearing a dress and hat. They are all looking at a photo.
Laura Thane Whipple (second from left) standing beside George Rolding, Jr., Winifred Maude Bendel (Handley), and Newton Brury. Courtesy Fremont Main Library, Gladys Williamson Collection
An aerial view of Moffett Field and the region’s wetlands, agricultural fields, and built developments.
Aerial photograph of Moffett Field, Cartwright Aerial Surveys, 1962. Flight CAS-SCL; Frame 2-189. Courtesy Department of Special Research Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

Evolution of the Site

Although Moffett Field was founded as a Naval Air Station, the vast property has also been the home of several other important entities. From 1935 until 1941, ownership of the site was temporarily transferred from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 1939, Congress authorized the construction of a new campus for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) adjacent to Naval Air Station Sunnyvale. The NACA Ames Research Center became a part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Those facilities include flight simulators, cutting-edge laboratories, advanced computing systems, and the world’s largest wind tunnels. The 129th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group, now known as the 129th Rescue Wing of the California Air National Guard, moved its multifaceted operations to Moffett Field in 1984. In 1991, the Federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) recommended the closure of Moffett Field as a naval air station. Three years later, the Department of Defense ended military operations at the site and transferred 1,875 acres of the property to NASA. The area including Hangar 1 and the original structures within the historic Shenandoah Plaza was renamed the NASA Research Park. In 2014, Planetary Ventures signed a 60-year lease with NASA to utilize 1,000 acres of Moffett Field, including Hangars 1, 2, and 3.

Primary zones of Moffett Field, Historic Resources Group, 2023. Courtesy Historic Resources Group

The original facilities of Naval Air Station Sunnyvale, including Shenandoah Plaza and Hangar 1, were commissioned for use in 1933. In the decades that followed, the site evolved to meet the demands of new missions and support the people who made those initiatives possible. Hangars 2 and 3 were constructed in 1943 to moor and maintain the airships that were active during World War II. Runways were extended and taxiways and parking aprons were added to accommodate larger and faster aircraft. Hundreds of acres of additional land on the east and south sides of the property were purchased in the 1940s and 1950s, in order to build ammunition storage areas and other essential structures. In 1959, a 9-hole golf course, designed by Bob E. Baldock, was built within the buffer zone between the airfield and the San Francisco Bay. Nine more holes, planned by golf course architect, Robert Muir Graves, were added in 1960. State-of-the-art training facilities, a new hangar, and other key buildings were constructed in the southeast corner of Moffett Field between 2002 and 2015 to support the 129th Rescue Wing's domestic and international operations.

Seven diagrams showing the site plan of Moffett Field in 1934, 1945, 1948, 1954, 1964, 1985, and 2013.
Period plans illustrating the evolution of Moffett Field, 1934 – 2013, AECOM, 2013. From AECOM, Historic Property Survey Report for the Airfield at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, (San Francisco, 2013), pages 66–67, Courtesy AECOM

Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, 
United States Navy, (1869–1933)

Rear Admiral William A. Moffett is considered the “Father of Naval Aviation.” Even though he was not a trained pilot, he became known as the “Air Admiral” and made aviation an essential part of the Navy fleet. His exemplary service was recognized with numerous commendations, including a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery while in command of the USS Chester during the Battle of Vera Cruz in 1914. Six years later, he became the Director of Naval Aviation at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C. In July 1921, Moffett was promoted to Rear Admiral. He became the first Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics and qualified as a Naval Aviation Observer in 1922.

Moffett guided the development and use of new technologies, including the aircraft carrier, shipboard catapults, modern aircraft and engines, and seaplanes. His vision and unwavering advocacy resulted in the advancement of the nation’s lighter-than-air (LTA) program, which included the construction of the USS Akron and the USS Macon dirigibles. He led the committee that selected the Sunnyvale–Mountain View area as the location for the West Coast’s first Naval Air Station and the home of the USS Macon.  

Tragically, Moffett was one of the 73 people who lost their lives in the crash of the USS Akron off the coast of New Jersey on April 4, 1933. Naval Air Station Sunnyvale opened eight days after his passing, and the Navy named the landing field in Moffett’s honor. When the Navy transferred the base to the Army Air Corps in 1937, the Army renamed the entire property Moffett Field, U.S. Army Air Corps Base. After the facility was transferred back to the Navy in 1942, it became Naval Air Station, Moffett Field. Following its closure as an active military base in 1994, it was named Moffett Federal Airfield, affirming the memory of the leader who helped launch the site’s record of aeronautical excellence.

A headshot of Rear Admiral William A. Moffett wearing his dark, formal Navy uniform and admirals hat with his arms crossed.
Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, circa 1920s or early 1930s. Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command, photo no. NH 47725

William Adger Moffett Bio. Courtesy National Aviation Hall of Fame
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