Save the Blimp Base
From this Naval air station airships hunted U-boats in the Florida Keys.
- By John Sotham
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 3 of 4)
The shootdown of K-74 is the only recorded combat loss of a blimp during the more than 500,000 hours of patrols flown worldwide during the war.
The sawgrass is whipping through the open windows of a Hummer, the civilian version of the burly military Humvee. Alan Crockwell, an amateur historian who volunteers his time to a growing effort to preserve Richmond's headquarters building, guides the vehicle to a flat table of asphalt surrounded by pine trees. We've parked where one of Richmond's three blimp hangars once stood-massive 1,086-foot-long structures made of wood beams and hung with sliding iron doors, whose graceful roofs arced to 183 feet.
As the war drew to a close, the base's K-series blimps were joined by new M-series ships that the Navy tested here. But in September 1945, scarcely two months after the war was over, the base was called upon once again to face down an enemy lurking at sea-a hurricane tracing a lazy path through the Caribbean. At the time, hurricane prediction was a shaky science at best-all that was known was that the storm would likely strike the state, but it was unknown where it would come ashore. Military aircraft-Grumman F6F Hellcats, Corsairs, and P-51 Mustangs, among others-were flown from nearby bases and from the deck of the USS Guadalcanal to the refuge offered by NAS Richmond's sturdy and cavernous blimp hangars.
The storm came ashore on the mangrove-entwined coast of south Florida, cut a swath across southern Dade County, and tore through Richmond NAS. The hangars, which stood close together and were stuffed with blimps and hundreds of fighters and bombers, withstood the winds. But one of them caught fire, perhaps from a short circuit. Witnesses reported seeing the winds drive flames horizontal, and eventually all three hangars were ablaze, lighting the night sky with burning wood, aircraft, and fuel. When the rain stopped, only the smaller buildings and the hangars' concrete corner pillars were standing.
Crockwell kneels and picks up a few oddly shaped glass beads from the asphalt pad. Others are melted irregularly into the surface, interspersed with a few metal fragments.
"You can really get a sense of how hot the fire was," says Crockwell. "These beads are all that's left of the windows. We find a lot of other fragments of glass and metal around-pieces of aircraft and airships."
Crockwell motions to the overgrowth next to the pad. "One of the legends of the place is that after the war was over, they dug big pits and pushed the aircraft parts into them," he says. "It's enticing to think that somewhere out here there may be pits full of World War II aircraft parts. Some of the oral accounts tell us that after the fire, you could buy a P-51 for $50."
As the Navy cleared the wreckage of the base, a demolition team dynamited the concrete pillars. One refused to fall. Now one of the highest structures in southern Dade County, it's bristling with antennas and is the central relaying station for the area's 911 service. Blimps never returned permanently after the storm, but the base's helium plant continued to supply Navy airships for years. Richmond's other buildings served a variety of uses, such as providing classroom space for servicemen going to school under the G.I. Bill, and later as space for Naval and Marine Corps Reserve units. The end came in 1992, when hurricane Andrew leveled all except the headquarters and that single, stubborn pillar.