The Life Within

Lane Wallace Explores a Blimp Hangar Turned Biosphere in Germany.


As I close my eyes and lean back against my towel-covered lounge chair, my toes digging into soft, white sand and my senses calmed by the sound of the waterfall splashing into the lagoon next to me, I have to work hard to convince myself that I am not, in fact, somewhere in Hawaii or Bora Bora. It helps if I open my eyes, of course, because then I can see, through the green fronds of the palm, banana and papaya trees surrounding me, the arching rooftop and grand, segmented doors of what is, inarguably, an aircraft hangar. An airship hangar, to be exact … and, to be even more precise, reportedly the largest clear-span hangar in the world, stretching more than 1,000 feet long, 320 feet high, and encompassing 5.2 million cubic meters of space.

If I actually make the effort to sit up and look out the windows in the lower portion of the hangar walls, I can also see that it is far from tropical on the outside of this mini-ecosystem. Snow is blowing past the windows in horizontal, billowing clouds, and the parking lot is covered in ice. If I really want to test my bizarro-meter, I can peer even more closely out those windows and make out, across the airfield, empty MiG bunkers covered in turf and snow.

This particular aircraft-hangar-turned-tropical-island, you see, is located on an ex-military airfield of the former East German Republic in Brand, Germany, just east of Berlin. Exactly how I found myself in a blimp hangar east of Berlin in the middle of winter is a whole 'nother story. But sitting next to my lagoon, Pina Colada in hand, two thoughts cross my mind. The first is that while I've seen hangars with hot tubs, bars, and even sand on the floors, this is an entirely new level of hangar experience for me. Not only have I gone walking on a beach and through a one km-long tropical rainforest path here, I've even had the chance to go flying of a sort, in a tethered helium balloon at one end of the hall. And while I've spent more than a few nights in a wide variety of hangars and hangar/homes that ranged from glitzy and luxurious to bitterly cold and uncomfortable, sleeping in a beach-tent home next to an African village in a hangar … well, that's a new one for me.

The second thought that registers, however, is that if this building were just a rectangular structure of equal size that had never housed a ship of the air, it wouldn't hold even half the same appeal for me. For as I sit and gaze across the rainforest in the middle of the hangar floor, I can still see, without even having been here when the event occurred, the Skyship 600 that once flew in here-in circles, my friend Edwin says with a remembered laugh, because of the air currents that swirled through the hangar when the gigantic end doors were opened to the outside wind. As Edwin tells the story, the airship materializes again in front of me-a 200-foot-long blimp, turning slow circles above the hangar floor, still dwarfed, somehow, by the size of its home.

Perhaps Edwin, his friend Matt and I are the only three people in this hangar who can still see the blimp lingering over the palm trees. It's too bad. For just as it's the people residing there who turn a mere house into a home filled with meaning, memories, warmth and life, it is the aircraft that have taken shelter within a hangar that turn it from a mere structure into someplace far more special, imbued with a mystical aura of adventures remembered and possibilities yet to come. And that is true whether the hangar in question is a towering dome capable of housing an entire tropical island, or the smallest wooden T-hangar providing shelter to a simple, timeworn Taylorcraft tucked away between drafty walls.

I have spent more than my fair share of time in all shapes and sizes of hangars, from pristine showplaces to clutter-monkey treasure troves, and I can't say as I have a favorite, although I have a collection of cherished memories from all sorts of different sources. There was, for example, the hangar in southern Indiana where I once spent a memorable date night-until 5:00 in the morning, mind you-painting an airplane. What can I say? I was young. But I still remember scooping up a mix of water and overspray from the pristine hangar floor with an industrial-sized squeegee at about 4:30 a.m., as I commented wryly to my date that he sure knew how to show a girl a good time. And yet, strange as it might seem, the memory still makes me smile, because he and I weren't just painting a tractor or cleaning the garage. We were readying a ship of the air for adventures that were already taking flight in our minds.

Then, too, there were the two small hangars at Cable Airport in Upland, California, filled with priceless aviation memorabilia, including the tower departure logs from the first women's transcontinental air race in 1929, and occupied by a wonderful retired airline pilot who shared my name. I flipped through a rack of black-and-white photos there for quite some time one day, stunned to find each of them signed by aviation luminaries from the 1930s and '40s … and addressed "To Lane."

"They're all made out to me!" I exclaimed to a friend.

"No," a deep voice said as Lane Leonard walked up behind me. "They're all made out to me." He and I were soon fast friends, and those hangars still hold a warm space in my heart, even though I've heard that Lane is no longer with us.

But the most memorable hangar experience I ever had was in an old World War II structure, with clouded windows and oversized sliding doors, perched on the salt flats of Wendover, Utah. A group of us had gone there to try to set a world speed record with a race plane. The hangar itself was rudimentary, notable only for its drafts, dust, the scorpions that skittered across the floor and the resident hawk that dove so relentlessly after its prey that it once crashed headlong into the racer's vertical fin.

And yet mention that hangar, with all its dust, critters and drafty desert winds, to any of the people who congregated there that September weekend in 1989, and I guarantee they will smile as if you'd mentioned an old friend. For over the course of four days, that hangar gave birth to a miracle. There was no religion involved, just the power of human temerity and a belief in the seemingly impossible. But it still transformed everyone privileged to be a part of it.

The race plane was a custom-built design called Tsunami. It had the look of a P-51 Mustang, if a bit smaller, and was powered by a highly modified V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin racing engine producing over 3,000 hp. It was built to go over 500 miles per hour, and we had high hopes for it, not only for the speed record, but for the Reno National Air Races, which would take place the following week. That is, until disaster struck. After one of its practice runs, the plane's gear collapsed on landing, sending the racer careening off the runway into the desert scrub brush.

The pilot was fine, but the damage was significant. In addition to the prop and engine, the radiator scoop under the belly was crushed, there were holes in the wings, the gear doors were destroyed, the radiator and every opening was packed with sand and grit, and one of the spars, a wingtip and part of the leading edge were bent. Clearly, the speed record attempt was over. And so was our chance at Reno, since the deadline for arrival there was only four days away. A year's worth of nights, weekends, sweat, hope and effort … all gone in the space of a few horrifying seconds. Watching the crew following forlornly behind the trailer as we trucked the crippled airplane back to the hangar was like watching a funeral cortege. No one had any words-not even any of the aviation notables or spectators who had come to watch the attempt.

The high-ceilinged hangar was ominously quiet as we walked around the wrecked airplane, our hearts somewhere deep beneath the sand. But after studying the damage for a few minutes, the plane's race pilot-who had also helped to build the plane-leaned over to a couple of the crew guys standing next to him and said quietly, "It's really not that bad, guys. I think we can fix it."

He was nuts. Surely he was nuts. Rebuild an entire race plane, in an empty hangar in the middle of the desert, in four days? Couldn't be done. But one look at him, and you realized that he truly believed it. His eyes were fired up with it. His belief was so strong, you could feel it. It shot up to the ceiling and echoed off the hangar walls, tingeing the silence with something that had not been there a few minutes before: hope. Crazy, madcap and possibly unrealizable hope, but there it was. And once that seed was planted, an amazing thing began to happen. The dazed faces of the crew began to take on focus. Conversations sprang up … "well, we could probably just patch this …," and "of course, we'd need to find a prop, but the radiator might be salvageable … ." The entire mood of the group began to swing. Hope gave way to thought, and thought bloomed into belief. And slowly but surely, that belief began to spread. Even the onlookers caught the fever and wanted to be a part of this miracle in the making. Soon the crew of six was a volunteer army of 20. One pilot volunteered his plane to go collect a new prop from halfway across the country. The composite master who'd been the crew chief on the Voyager volunteered to rebuild the fiberglass radiator scoop. Lockheed engineers did structural analyses on various fixes and patches. One volunteer spent the better part of four days armed with a handful of tie-wraps, painstakingly clearing the sand out of the radiator, one tiny opening at a time. The hangar buzzed with energy and activity deep into the night as we worked around the clock, in heat and cold, eating bologna sandwiches on white bread to keep the hunger at bay.

But four days later, a rebuilt airplane rolled out of the hangar and took to the skies again, touching down at Reno a whole 15 minutes before the arrival deadline. And when the racer roared over the race pits as it circled to land, every crew on the line cheered. For when any of us manage to prove that the impossible is actually possible, it makes all of us a little more free. Our hearts remember the power of belief, the joy of a dream pursued, and we are again, for a brief, shining moment in time, young.

I haven't been back to Wendover since, but if I were to walk into that hangar 20 years from now, I would still see Andy cleaning the radiator and Bruce and Ray fashioning a patch for the wing, and I would still hear the rat-tat-tat of the rivet guns, the whirring scrape of sandpaper, and the voices calling, joking, cursing and laughing throughout the night. Just as I still see the Skyship circling over the rainforest. And just as I can walk by any hangar with a couch, a refrigerator and a bunch of aviation posters looking down on some clearly beloved airplane, and still see a multitude of dreams, travels, adventures and friendships that were all forged, nurtured and cherished there.

To see all those things doesn't require a vastly overactive imagination, or any particular magic. It just requires looking with the heart as well as the eyes. For it's only with our hearts that we see the important things within any outside shell, from the lowliest hangar to the most complex human being. And it is in our hearts that those riches linger, long after the aircraft and people are gone.