During World War II, the Pendleton, Oregon airport served as homebase to a bomber wing that flew anti-submarine patrols along the West Coast and took part in a daring mission called the Doolittle Raid. Now after many decades of slumber, the Army Air Corps’ historic hangar is buzzing again.
Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle selected crews and planes from the Pendleton wing to carry out the first U.S. air raid on Japan. The crews trained for the top secret mission on the East Coast before traveling by aircraft carrier to the far Western Pacific. The surprise bombardment in 1942 of the Japanese heartland boosted morale on the American home front.
After the war, the federal government transferred ownership of Pendleton Field to the city. Airport manager Steve Chrisman said the Doolittle hangar was underused and in disrepair for decades — until defense contractor PAE ISR moved in this year.
"It's exciting to see it being reborn 75 years after its heyday," Chrisman said. "Hopefully, it's going to have another. (Actually,) it is having another heyday right now."
The new tenant is using the rehabbed hangar as a base for flight testing of reconnaissance drones. PAE ISR's drone model is named the Resolute Eagle. It has an 18-foot wingspan.
PAE ISR announced a contract with NASA last month to use the Resolute Eagle to demonstrate ways to safely integrate manned and unmanned aircraft in shared airspace. NASA is helping the Federal Aviation Administration work out automated aircraft identification, tracking and collision avoidance procedures, and technology so that commercial drone operations at altitudes above 500 feet can someday become routine.
Virginia-based PAE ISR chose the FAA-approved Pendleton Unmanned Aircraft Systems Range to host its test flights. The NASA drone integration contract runs through 2020.
Chrisman said before PAE ISR arrived in northeastern Oregon, the city was renting out the cavernous WWII-era hanger to an experimental aircraft club for just one dollar per year.
"It sat empty prior to that," Chrisman recalled. "It became a giant bird aviary."
Chrisman said the city recently secured a $300,000 state grant to repair the roof of the historic structure. Roofers were on site this month racing to beat the onset of winter.
"If you had to rebuild this hangar in today's dollars it would about $50 million is what I've been told," Chrisman said in an interview at the airport on Friday.
Trailer for a historical documentary from the Pendleton Air Museum about the area's contributions to World War II aviation: