On the big day, Clemens rushed a group of reporters and Navy history buffs to Hangar Two ahead of schedule. One of the model's helium bags had sprung a tiny leak. But Clemens appeared confident. After a brief speech, he used one hand to gently give flight to the model, which weighs only seven pounds but is as long as a large pickup truck. After circling the upper regions of the former blimp hangar for five minutes under the power of eight tiny radio-controlled motors, the Macon was gently brought down into Clemens' hands with a round of applause and giddy grins all around.
The clean landing was a welcome end to a journey in which success often seemed elusive.
The first version of the model Macon didn't fare well, either. It was destroyed by Clemens' cat Rosco. The cat dislodged a bowling ball that fell on the model while it was parked in Clemens' garage. His wife encouraged him to build a second version, but he lost control of that one in a test flight. He found it three days later in an orchard five miles from his house, lodged high up a tree. A PG&E bucket truck helped him retrieve it.
If the event felt like a bit of childhood relived, it was for Saratoga resident Michael Giansiracusa. He was 9 years old when the Macon was flown regularly. It would fly over his home near North First Street in San Jose. "I would look up and say, 'look at that!'" he said.
To add to the amazing scene, the Sparrowhawk planes stored on a trapeze in the Macon's belly would be deployed in preparation for the Macon's landing, Giansiracusa said.
"It was a technical marvel," Clemens said of the Macon. "I tell everybody that about the same time the Woolworth building was built in New York. The tallest building in New York City, it stressed the ability of architects to build a vertical structure some 800-900 feet tall. These guys did it horizontally with aluminum and tried to fly it. They were well beyond the technology of the day. The fact that it crashed is probably no great surprise. But the fact they did it at all was just amazing."
After 50 flights and patrol missions the original Macon crashed and sunk in the Pacific Ocean off Point Sur on Feb. 12, 1935 in stormy weather. All but two of the 76 crew members survived.
Clemens said he was struck by a picture of Hangar One left empty the night of the crash. He wanted to symbolically "bring the Macon home" with his model, he said.
Unfortunately Hangar One has been closed to the public for years because of toxics in the siding, which is now being stripped off its frame. Clemens called the failure so far to find a way to fund a new skin Hangar One "a travesty" given all of the "millionaires and billionaires" in Silicon Valley. Hangar One played a role in shaping the valley as the landmark of the former Moffett Field Naval Air Station, which attracted and anchored NASA Ames Research Center, an under-appreciated player in Silicon Valley's development since the beginning.
So Moffett's Hangar Two, which houses a modern airship under development, had to suffice. In the next few weeks the model will find a home inside the Moffett Museum next to Hangar One.
A video of the flight can be found at mv-voice.com.
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