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They’re Still There

The Dirigible Dock

Winter 1996 | Volume 11 |  Issue 3

It looks ungainly from the outside: a burnt loaf of bread two hundred feet high. But then you enter, by way of doors large enough to drive trucks through. Those doors are tiny afterthoughts cut into the bottom corners of the real doors. The real doors, two on each end of the building, are 214 feet wide at the bottom, 202 feet high, and curved like a quarter-hemisphere of orange peel, each coming to a point at the top where it pivots on a single pin. Each of these big sliding doors is pulled open by standard-gauge railroad cars that run alongside its bottom edge.

Inside, you’re in maybe the biggest unobstructed open space in the world. Maybe , because, as Gary J. Dell, in charge of communications for Loral Defense Systems-Akron, tells me, “NASA’s vehicle-assembly building or the Astrodome may be bigger. We don’t know.” But this building, unlike those, has been around since 1929, when it was erected so that the world’s largest airships, the Akron and the Macon , could be built inside it. It’s big enough to hold seven football fields laid side by side.

 

It is used mainly for storage now and kept ready in case the military airship business starts up again. Starts up again? I ask Cary Dell. “You never know. We bid on a contract for a dirigible in 1986,” he explains, “the year before Loral bought this plant from Goodyear. The Navy had a plan to build an airship to protect the fleet from cruise missiles. Airships have a big advantage over AWACS planes: They can stay aloft for days without refueling. That project didn’t make it, though.”

Inside, the distant walls are lined, floor to peak, with a spidery filigree of steel trusswork—the actual structure of the airdock. Along the base of each wall runs an unobtrusive line of small buildings; tucked into a far corner is a larger one about the size of a Grand Union. From one end of the building to the other is almost a quarter of a mile.

“Let’s take the elevator up to the top,” says Gary. The elevator is an inclined-plane railroad that climbs up the inside wall of the building; it’s operated by Joe Johnson, who has charge of the airdock’s maintenance. We step into a plain, dark, open-topped cab huddled against the wall, and I watch the wall curve into ceiling above me as we rise. When the cab jolts to a stop, we step out onto a woodplank catwalk 180 feet above the concrete floor.

Holding tight to a railing, I look down eighteen stories to forklifts moving down lanes painted on the floor. The space down there has been divided into city blocks, with roads and intersections. “This way to the roof,” Joe says.

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