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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
A mannequin sits at the controls of a replica of the 1911 Burgess-Wright B Flyer. Hill Aerospace Museum traces the evolution of flight from early days to modern times.

There they sit: majestic metal birds, heroes of the sky that have served their country in war and peace.

They trace the history of aviation.

They bring to life the hazards of combat.

They capture the spirit of flight.

But the thing that Hill Aerospace Museum director Scott Wirz likes best about them is that they are more than just hardware.

"They represent people. You can't look at them without thinking of the missions they have flown, but it's the people who flew those missions that are most important," he said.

These planes represent "your United States Air Force," he says. And chances are very good that they represent a friend, a neighbor, a grandfather, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a cousin, a father, a mother.

And he has seen what these planes do to those people who come to see them. "Maybe you have a grandfather who has hesitated to talk about his service. He comes here, and he opens up like it was yesterday. Maybe you have a mom who will be reminded of her service, or the service of others, during the Korean War. These planes trigger memories. They give you a new understanding of who these people are."

The purpose of the museum, Wirz says, is to preserve history but also to preserve memories and honor service.

To accomplish that goal, the Hill Aerospace Museum has more than 65 aircraft and some 3,000 other artifacts in its collection.

"We are the second-largest field museum in the country," he says. Only the one at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia is larger.

There's also a National Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson in Ohio, which is also larger, but Wirz is justifiably proud of what Hill Air Force Base has been able to put together since the 1980s, when the idea was first broached as part of the United States Air Force Heritage Program.

The museum is operated largely by volunteers, many of whom are veterans and some of whom flew in these very planes.

Those volunteers "are the most wonderful group of people I've ever had the honor of working with," says Beth Halperin, who coordinates volunteer activity for the museum. "We have people ranging from high school and college age to a man who will turn 90 in December. We have veterans from World War II — their ranks are getting smaller all the time — and from Korea and Vietnam and other conflicts. When some of those veterans get talking, I could just listen to them all day."

(To find out more about being a volunteer, call Halperin at 801-777-6818.)

The museum houses the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame and also offers a variety of educational programs, including an outreach team that travels to schools and a hands-on learning center that is open to school and youth groups by appointment.

There's something about planes that captures the imagination at any age, Wirz says.

The planes at the museum are housed in two indoor buildings as well as the outdoor field. They are arranged chronologically, beginning with a replica of an early Wright Brothers flier. "This is a safe aircraft," Wirz says. "It has a seat belt."

Getting the field of aviation off the ground was a tricky business, he says. "The old saying goes that there are old aviators and bold aviators, but there are no old, bold aviators. The Wrights were incredible in a lot of respects. They didn't take for granted anything that had been said about aerodynamics."

While planes were used in World War I, the Air Force did not really come into its own until World War II, and that period is well-represented at the museum with such planes as the B-17G Flying Fortress, a B-24D Liberator, a P-40N Warhawk, a B-29 Superfortress, a P-51D Mustang.

The B-24 was the "most-produced aircraft in history," Wirz explains. "Some 18,000 were made. But fewer than 40 have survived." The one they have in the museum was salvaged from the Aleutians and restored. "Can you just imagine a farm kid coming in off the plains of Iowa, say, and learning to fly that plane?"

There's a C-47, which took part in Operation Thursday, a mission to harass the Japanese in the Pacific that started off as a disaster but eventually helped develop the expertise needed for the Normandy invasion.

In the Korean section, "we're trying to put the story into even more context," Wirz said. There are wooden walkways that mimic the ones the airmen created out of barrel stays. He has already created one minidiorama that shows men working on a plane. He is going to add others that show the mud and snow they had to contend with. "When anyone talks about Korea, mud and snow are what they talk about," he says.

His volunteers have built a ramp out of a MiG15 wing — "that's the plane they flew against in Korea," he says. There's also a little hut "that explains Korea, that brings it home with Utahns who served there. What happened at Hill played an important role in Korea."

The museum has planes that show the transition from piston engine to jet engine; fighter jets that flew in Vietnam. Each one has a story; each one has personality.

None shows off that personality any more than an official presidential plane used by Lyndon Johnson. "It came to us completely stripped, and it has been restored to its 1965 interior by one of our volunteers, Geoff Baer, who spent 10 years and about $40,000 of his own money to do it."

The plane sports a blue that is not an Air Force color, Wirz says. "That presidential paint scheme was chosen by Jackie Kennedy."

The plane was dubbed "Air Force 1 1/2" by Johnson; it is smaller than Air Force One and was used to fly family and small groups of advisers. "This was where he let his hair down. Just think of the interesting decisions that were made in this aircraft. And there are even original air-sickness bags."

Wirz is working on a project to collect and record the stories of the planes and the people behind them. He hopes to eventually have some computer banks where you can hear the experiences of veterans of all conflicts. "A lot of people, even the veterans themselves, don't realize how important their contributions were. Maybe they didn't fly or drop bombs. Maybe they were in maintenance or did other work. It all adds up."

And that, he says, is the real message of the Hill Aerospace Museum.

If you go

What: Hill Aerospace Museum Food-for-Life Day

Where: Hill Air Force Base

When: Saturday, Sept. 13, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission: Donation of nonperishable food item requested

Information: www.hill.af.mil/library/museum


E-mail: carma@desnews.com