Wandering the West
July 21, 2009
Here’s something close and free for a great afternoon. Hill Air Force Base is one of the nation’s top bases for F-16 fighter jets, the staple of the Air Force. It’s just south of Ogden and off limits to visitors, but the northwest corner, fenced off from the off-limits stuff, welcomes everyone who’s interested in aviation and aviation history. The Hill Aerospace Museum is at Exit 338 off I-15, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake.
This is one great collection of aircraft. The smaller and the more delicate planes sit inside the museum, while the monster aircraft that were once in the Air Force fleet sit outside.
Let’s stay outside first. From the freeway you can’t miss the B-52, the long-range high-flying bomber that joined the Air Force in 1955. Nearly 100 of them still fly active duty today, flown by pilots younger than their planes. Nearby is the Douglas Globemaster, at its time the largest plane in the world. It could take off weighing 100 tons, carrying 200 troops at a time or 35 tons of cargo.
While outside, take note of the planes departing and arriving at Hill. They’re almost all F-16 Fighting Falcons, roaring off in pairs for training over west-desert training ranges, or perhaps being deployed to the Middle East to enforce no-fly zones. They’re so loud this close they drown out all hopes of carrying on a conversation. As everyone who lives in Davis County around the base will tell you, "That’s the sound of freedom!"
Inside you’ll find a permanently grounded F-16, bristling with dummy rockets and bombs. You’ll also find much of the history of U.S. aviation. It starts with a reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ first production-model aircraft, the Flyer B. Next to it is a reproduction of the first aircraft seen by most Americans of the 1920s, the Curtis Jenny, which barnstormers flew at county fairs across the country after the end of World War One.
Most everything else in the museum is the real deal — actual aircraft that made history in the evolution of aviation. There’s a host of World War Two aircraft, including the B-25 bomber like those flown over Tokyo by Jimmy Doolittle’s raiders in the early days of the war, and the iconic B-17 bomber, probably the most famous airplane to come out of WWII. The B-17 bombed Germany mercilessly, at a high cost in lost planes and crews.
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Alongside those icons, look for the Curtis P-40, the earliest available WWII fighter, and later fighters like the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Shooting Star, the first U.S. fighter jet that debuted too late in the war to fly any combat missions. The Shooting Star did see action in Korea, downing Russia’s best MIGs.
One of the best features of the Hill Museum is the fact that many docents are retired military pilots who flew the planes. Ask them questions — they’re full of facts and stories.
One of the single most impressive planes I’ve ever seen is the SR-71 Blackbird, a high-altitude reconnaissance plane that flew so high it went undetected as it snapped pictures over enemy territory. As I was standing before it, a docent who once flew Blackbirds started telling me facts and stories that didn’t make it onto the signboards in front of it. For example, the plane took off nearly empty and was refueled almost immediately in the air. And he told me that Hill’s Blackbird was modified with a second bubble window to use as a trainer for a second pilot, and that the second bubble alone, protruding less than a foot above the airframe, knocked the Blackbird’s top speed down by 600 mph. Satellite imagery has made sneaking over enemy territory for pictures almost obsolete, but rumor has it that the Pentagon still keeps some of the ’60s-era planes around, just in case.
Here’s a suggestion: Take I-80 to I-15 and head north to the base. After the visit, continue on to Ogden and have dinner at Rooster’s, a brewpub on historic 25th Street. Then head home on I-84 through Weber Canyon and meet up with I-80 at Coalville north of Park City. That way you have made a circle without repeating yourself, had some fresh brewskis, seen some new scenery and learned a heck of a lot about aviation.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Hill AFB: 63 miles
Insider tip: Check out the uniform room to see how the outfits have evolved from barnstormers with goggles to full pressure suits equipped to survive atomic-bomb drops