Heavier-Than-Air (HTA) Era

In 1947, Moffett Field’s gravity-defying blimps were replaced by the fixed wing, or heavier-than-air (HTA), planes of the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS). Their vital mission was to provide cargo, personnel, and mail to deployed fleets and forces across the globe. Improvements to the airfield’s infrastructure, including new and extended runways, taxiways, parking aprons, and lighting, were completed to accommodate the large, four-engine R5D Skymaster transport planes used by NATS. Moffett Field evolved into the largest NATS base on the West Coast, and Hangars 2 and 3 were utilized for aircraft overhaul and repair operations. In October 1949, NATS operations at Moffett Field were replaced by the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), which was a partnership between the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. MATS squadrons flying R5Ds (Navy DC-4s), R6Ds (Navy DC-6s), R7Vs (Navy Super Constellations), and C-130s were based in Hangars 2 and 3 until 1967.

A side view of a 4-propeller aircraft, with the Navy white star insignia on its side and wing, soaring above Hangars 2 and 3 at Moffett Field.
Naval Air Transport Service Douglas R5D Skymaster flying over Moffett Field, U.S. Navy, circa late 1940s. Courtesy Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library, National Naval Aviation Museum
5 aircraft inside a large maintenance hangar. Each plane has 4 propellers, a white star insignia and Naval Air Transport Service written on its side.
Naval Air Transport Service Douglas R5D-2 50865 aircraft inside Hangar 2 or 3, U.S. Navy, 1947. Courtesy National Archives & Records Administration, record group 80-G

A powerful new Jet Age began at Moffett Field with the start of the Korean War in 1950. Carrier-based fighter and attack squadrons were moved to the base, and fighter jet pilots were trained onsite. In 1950, Moffett Field was recognized as the first of nine all-weather naval air stations.

In 1951, in order to serve faster aircraft capable of flying at higher altitudes, new support buildings were added, both runways were resurfaced and extended, taxiways were expanded, new parking and apron areas were constructed, and an innovative, high-speed refueling system was added. Three new high-explosive magazines and an ordnance handling pad were also built. A fuel transport and storage system, consisting of a barge canal, dock, wharf, pipeline, and fuel farm east of Hangar 3, was completed in 1953.

An aerial view of Moffett Field, including its golf course and adjacent wetlands in the foreground, and the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
Aerial photograph of Naval Air Station Moffett Field, U.S. Navy, 1968. Courtesy Moffett Field Historical Society Museum, photo no. A40509-9 3-19-68
A side view of a 4-propeller plane, with Military Air Transport Service, U.S. Navy, and a star insignia on its side, flying above Hangars 2 and 3.
Super Constellation of Military Air Transport Service (MATS) over Moffett Field, U.S. Navy, circa 1958. From Spencer Gleason, Moffett Field: From Lighter-Than-Air to Faster-Than-Sound, 1933–1958 Silver Anniversary (NAS Moffett Field, 1958), page 75. Courtesy National Archives & Records Administration, record group 80-G

Commissioned at Moffett Field in 1951, Fleet Aircraft Service Squadron (FASRON) 10 was one of the first all-jet FASRON groups in the Navy. Hangars 2 and 3 were used to provide maintenance services and repair aircraft that were damaged while serving in the Pacific Fleet. In 1953, Moffett Field was designated one of the Navy's nine "Navy Master Jet Stations.'' F3D Skynight, F2H Banshees, F3H Demons, FJ-3 and FJ-4 Furies, F7U Cutlasses, AD Skyraiders, F9F Panthers and Cougars, F4D Skyray, and subsonic A4D Skyhawks all took flight from Moffett Field. Nearly every new supersonic jet fighter aircraft used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the early 1950s was flight-tested at Moffett Field, including F8U Crusaders and F11F Tigers. Jet aircraft squadrons were based at Moffett Field until 1961, when Naval Air Station Lemoore in California's San Joaquin Valley took over operations that were deemed too loud to continue zooming above the densely populated Bay Area and potentially risky as the air traffic from the region’s three civilian airports increased.

The next phase of the HTA era at Moffett Field began in 1962, when it was chosen as the West Coast training center for the Navy’s anti-submarine operations. Just like the rigid airships and blimps that patrolled the Pacific, the new propeller-driven Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft was designed to fly long missions at low-altitudes and slow speeds to hunt for threats above and below the ocean’s surface.

The four-engine turboprop P-3 could reach a maximum speed of 405 miles per hour and had a range of 5,570 miles. Its crew of up to 12 people, including three pilots, could extend their 10 or 12-hour missions by shutting down one of the P-3’s four engines to conserve fuel. Throughout the Cold War, Soviet submarine activity was tracked using a Magnetic Anomaly Detection boom at the end of the fuselage and sonobuoys that were dropped from the plane into the waters below and then monitored by radio. The aircraft also had an internal bomb bay that could house torpedoes, nuclear weapons, mines, missiles, and bombs.

A low-flying aircraft, with 4 propellers and the Navy white star insignia on its side and wing, tracks a dark submarine emerging from the ocean waves.
A P-3 Orion patrol plane flies over USS Chopper (SS-342), U.S. Navy, circa 1970s. Courtesy National Archives, photo no. USN 1144338

Moffett Field was the command center, administration, and training facility for all Pacific anti-submarine operations and became the largest P-3 base in the world. Pilots and technical crews received their training in an area of the airfield nicknamed “Orion University.” That zone included Hangars 2 and 3, which could each hold up to 12 aircraft.

A total of nine P-3 patrol squadrons were stationed at Moffett Field during the period of 1963 until 1993: VP-31 "Black Lightnings/Genies," VP-9 "Golden Eagles," VP-19 "Big Red," VP-40 "Fighting Marlins," VP-46 "Grey Knights," VP-47 "The Golden Swordsmen," VP-48 "The Boomerangers," VP-50 "Blue Dragons," and VP-91 "Black Cats" reserve squadron. In 1973, Moffett Field became the headquarters of the Commander of the Patrol Wing for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which was responsible for patrolling 93 million square miles of ocean from Alaska to Hawaii.

In 1990, Congress passed the Base Closure Act, which aimed to save money by identifying and shutting down military facilities that were deemed unnecessary after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) placed Naval Air Station Moffett Field on the list of recommended base closures in 1991. Over the next three years, Moffett Field’s P-3 squadrons were either retired or relocated to Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island, Washington and Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. The last active duty P-3 squadron departed on December 21, 1993. The reserve squadron VP-91 continued its operations at Moffett Field until 1999. On July 1, 1994, Naval Air Station Moffett Field was decommissioned. NASA became the steward of the majority of the site, and Hangar 3 became the home of the 129th Rescue Wing of the California Air National Guard.

A birds-eye view of Hangars 2 and 3 located side-by-side at Moffett Field. Rows of P-3 Orion patrol planes are parked outside both ends of the hangars.
Moffett Field Hangars 2 and 3 with P-3 Orion aircraft, Wernher Krutein, circa 1986. Courtesy, photo no. MYNV03P01_19
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