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Leigh Ishida, the project team chief for the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, checks out renovation work for Hangar 15 at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.
Leigh Ishida, the project team chief for the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, checks out renovation work for Hangar 15 at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – A massive 72-year-old hangar that’s hosted B-29 bombers, countless change-of-command ceremonies and a troop talk by the sitting U.S. president is getting a $5.7 million upgrade at the home of U.S. Forces Japan in western Tokyo.

Hangar 15, at the southern end of Yokota’s runway, is 50 feet tall from floor to rafters and 164 feet wide – big enough to accommodate the C-130J Super Hercules transport planes operated by the 374th Airlift Wing.

In recent months the hangar, which houses the headquarters of the 374th Maintenance Squadron, has been enclosed by a tall metal wall across its front.

In March, contractor Nippo Corp. began work to replace the hangar’s giant sliding doors, 374th Airlift wing spokesman 1st Lt. Stuart Thrift said in an email Tuesday. Air Force activities that would normally take place inside the hangar have shifted to other facilities.

The Nippo Corp. workers have been digging foundations for a structure that will support a pair of massive new doors, said Leigh Ishida, project team chief with the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron, during a tour of the facility Monday.

“There were some safety issues with the antiquated system,” he said of the old metal folding doors, which dated to the hangar’s construction in 1948.

The doors, which were removed and sent for recycling, were motorized but could be cranked open and closed by hand, which took a lot of energy and involved several airmen, Ishida said.

There was a danger of an airman being crushed by the old heavy doors, which sustained damage in a typhoon a few years ago.

The new doors will be automatic and linked to the hangar’s fire alarm system, he said.

Built for U.S. forces occupying Japan, the hangar has always been a maintenance facility, Thrift said. Aircraft that have flown out of Yokota since its construction include B-29 Superfortress bombers stationed at the base during the Korean War.

Other planes that may have been maintained in the hangar include B-57 Canberra, B-50 Superfortress, B-52 Stratofortress and B-47 Stratojet bombers, Thrift said.

The hangar’s size makes it the perfect spot for command-change ceremonies for base leaders or the three-star generals who lead USFJ.

During Yokota’s annual Friendship Festival, an event canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the hangar houses a stage where bands entertain curious locals who come to check out military aircraft outside.

In March 2017, the first of Yokota’s 14 Super Hercules aircraft pulled up to the hangar to be met by a crowd of airmen, journalists and officials.

In November of that year, troops filled the hangar and chanted “USA! USA!” during a visit by President Donald Trump who spoke to them wearing a leather flight jacket in front of a giant American flag and F-16 and F-35B fighters. A few months later, in February 2018, Vice President Mike Pence stood in the hangar and blasted North Korea for human rights abuses while describing Yokota as a “citadel of strength.”

Another historic hangar near Yokota’s south end was demolished last fall to make way for a new maintenance and fabrication facility. Known as Building 800, the hangar was constructed by the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1930s when Yokota was known as Tama Army Airfield.

Renovation of Hangar 15 is scheduled to wrap up by June of next year, Thrift said. Twitter: @SethRobson1

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