ByᅠCristina Rojas/The Times of Trenton:

Officials at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst broke ground last week on a newᅠ$42 million, 100,000-square-foot hangar that will replace a historic wooden structure they say is in such poor condition it could damage aircraft and equipment.

Known as Hangar 5, the existing structure was built in 1943 for the Navy’s antisubmarine blimp fleet during World War II. Hangar 5 and its still-standing twin, Hangar 6, are the largest, single arch wooden structures ever built, each with 241,000 square feet of floor space. They were constructed to house the Navy’s greatly expanding fleet of antisubmarine patrol blimps of the World War II era, which numbered six in 1940 and rose to 130 by the war’s end.

Hangar 5 currently houses a research and development center that integrates and tests equipment that goes into aircraft, including infrared counter measures, signals intelligence sensor systems and radar systems.

“The escalating risk of damage or destruction of aircraft and unique equipment had the potential to undermine the research, testing, reset and re-modification missions carried on daily at the facility,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th Dist.), a staunch advocate for base operations.

Nets have been stretched underneath the wooden ceilings in the hangars to protect workmen and aircraft below from falling debris, according to Jeff Sagnip, spokesman for Smith.

Airship housing at the Lakehurst facility has a rich history. All of the Navy’s four rigid air ships, USS Shenandoah, USS Los Angeles, USS Akron and USS Macon, were housed there at one time or another there. The ill-fated Hindenburg was housed at Lakehurst.

Its early transcontinental passenger trips made the location the country’s first international airport. However, on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg burst into flames at Lakehurst, killing 35.

Six years ago, Smith began working with Army officials to advance the hangar replacement project, which was eventually included in the Department of Defense spending plan for 2013 even amid budget cuts.

“Present-day downsizing and huge, potentially dangerous and destructive cuts in military spending have made securing new military construction a very daunting task,” he said.

Smith has also stepped in lately to prevent possible funding cuts to the KC-10 refueling plane fleet, which could be cut from the military budget in 2016. There are 32 of the planes at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, providing jobs for many personnel. The Pentagon thinks different types of planes can do the job better.

Construction of the new hangar is slated to be complete by early 2016. It will include a single-bay hangar, a two-bay hangar, apron pavement for aircraft, maintenance support shops and administrative, lab and supporting facilities.

It will be large enough to handle multiple helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft up to the size of a C-130 four-engine turboprop aircraft.