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Military aviation history comes alive at Roy site

The aircraft collection at the Hill Aerospace Museum, just off I-15 in Roy, would make a motley air force of its own.

Many of the historic bombers, fighters, cargo carriers and 'copters have nicknames befitting lean, mean war-machines: the A-26B Invader; the F-89H Scorpion; the F-84F Thunderstreak and the P-38J Lightning. Others sound rather protective: the C-123K Provider; the C-131D Samaritan - and the T-29C Flying Classroom.All are impressive - even the benignly named Snark, Aardvark and Goonie Bird. And that's especially true for children.

"They're big," for one thing, Joyce Rasmussen of Roy said when she dropped by with her 3-year-old son and four other children she tends. "And they like the helicopters and the little `baby planes' " - so described by the kids because behemoths like the Stratofortress and the Globemaster seem so, well, large and parental.

All of the children were excited as they ran among the gigantic tires and huge propellers of the planes arrayed around the 50-acre museum site. They wanted to know how many people could fit in each aircraft, "and whether you can eat and go potty on the plane," Rasmussen said.

The Hill facility has almost 70 aircraft, said Rick Oliver, the museum's director, and more are on the way.

"Hopefully, at the end of February, the first of March we'll be getting a P-40 that's been restored, and they're working on a B-24 for us that we should be getting in about two years," Oliver said - "they" being a company in California that does such work.

The Hill Aerospace Museum first opened on a smaller scale in 1987, moving to its current site, about 23 miles north of Salt Lake City, in 1991.

With its proximity to the freeway, the museum has become a draw - to passersby, vacationing tourists and families and kids out of school. Already more than a million have dropped by. In 1996, the number of visitors topped out at 196,000; it dropped back slightly to about 188,000 last year. "In summertime we'll average 700 to 1,200 people a day," Oliver said.

Today the museum grounds include open space for the historic aircraft parked outside, a huge hangar-like building sheltering 16 planes, large and small, and an administrative and gallery area.

One gallery near the entrance is packed with equipment and uniforms used by aviators throughout this century, from the fleece- and cloth-lined leather helmets of World War I to the outfits of modern airmen from the United States, Britain and even Russia.

"Being a military aviator between the dawn of flight and the 1930s was not easy," notes one display. Pilots and passengers sat in cockpits open to the bitter cold, the spattering oil and the roar of their engines. "Braving the elements, these aviation pioneers adapted clothing from other activities or pursuits to make themselves more effective and comfortable," says the accompanying text.

In fact, the early helmets look like those worn by football players in the time of "the Galloping Ghost," and the goggles and leather coats are similar to those used by cross-country motorcyclists well before Marlon Brando in "The Wild One."

Dozens of uniforms and flight suits have been collected by or donated to the museum, allowing curators to attire standing mannikins. A well-dressed B-17 bomber crew member, for instance, would don a shearling leather outfit, including jacket, pants, gloves and boots; a parachute would be strapped onto his chest; he'd add a holster and pistol, an oxygen mask, headphones and polaroid goggles, and top it off with a fleece helmet.

Smaller exhibits, including a wall "timeline," outline the history of neighboring Hill Air Force Base. The northern Utah site was designated as "Hill Field" in 1939, in honor of Ployer P. Hill, a chief test pilot of the U.S. Army Air Corps who was killed in a 1935 crash. During World War II it became Hill Air Force Base, and its duties expanded over the decades to include modernization, repair and upkeep of various fleets of aircraft as well as a home field for airmen.

Through Feb. 8 the museum is hosting a colorful traveling Smithsonian exhibit, "Produce for Victory: Posters on the American Homefront 1941-45." Examples proclaim "Remember Pearl Harbor - purl harder!" (for knitters involved in the war effort) and "Together we can do it!" with sleeves-rolled-up arms of a laborer and a manager.

Apparently the Office of War Information, which supervised the 1940s poster effort, was involved in a little clash of its own, between symbolists who preferred stylized "war art" and peacetime admen who believed the depictions and slogans needed to be more accessible to the public, something like magazine ads.

The admen eventually won. The reasons why are clear.

"That guy looks like Darth Vader," said a young woman passing by a dark poster with a helmeted figure peering over a barrier of some sort like Kilroy. "He's watching you!" declares the poster in ominous script. A survey of workers in five New Jersey factories showed most thought the fellow pictured was their boss - not a German soldier, as was intended.

The advertising men wanted to show nuclear families around the dinner table and working in the yard. One set of their posters says, "This is America . . . keep it free," and showed exactly that.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Hill Aerospace Museum, however, is the large hangar. There a dark SR-71C Blackbird holds center court, just about stretching from one end of the hall to the other. The sleek reconnaisance plane looks like it could pierce the sky - and indeed it could soar to 80,000 feet.

Nearby, a B-17G Flying Fortress from World War II dwarfs a Jeep sheltered under its left wing. A painting on the fuselage shows a cartoonlike Adolph Hitler stuck sitting up in a short coffin, his bare toes sticking out the end. The name given the plane: "Short Bier."

Other exhibits - a few of them hanging from the ceiling - include a P-38J Lightning fighter, one of the museum's most recent aquisitions, recovered from an Aleutian island and restored; a P-51D Mustang; an I-84G Thunderjet; and a Russian MiG-21F. Also on display are a remotely guided "smart bomb" and a couple of bulky atomic bombs - at least, the green, snub-nosed housings for an early generation of such weapons.

Checking out the aircraft is, most of the time, a mildly distant "look but don't touch" - and certainly a "don't climb on the aircraft" - proposition. But at certain times of year the museum does open up a few planes, Oliver said. Stairs are moved up to the cockpits and portals so visitors can peek inside. This is done one day during the first week of April and during the third week in September as part of the Food for Life drive.

"People bring a can of food in, and get to go through and get hands on," the museum director added. The food is subsequently donated to charity.

The idea may yet be expanded throughout the year, Oliver said, "a `Plane of the Month' program," which he expects to implement soon.

He'd also like to add a restoration facility to the museum site. There aircraft would be brought back into trim before the eyes of the visiting public.

All of this has been made possible by donations, some state grants and a host of volunteers, Oliver said.

Although many of the latter come from among those who work at Hill Air Force Base, the installation itself does not fund the Hill Aerospace Museum.

"Everybody thinks Hill Air Force Base is dumping all this money on us, and it's not true," Oliver said. "Everything is privately funded. They maintain the grounds and the facility for us, but that's where it stops.

"We have a staff of four here and approximately 85 to 125 volunteers at any one time," he said. "We couldn't operate without our volunteers."

Admission to the Hill Aerospace Museum is free. The museum, adjacent to I-15 in Roy via Exit 341, is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year round, but closes on the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays. For more information, call 801-777-6868 or 801-777-6818, or check the Web site at (www.hill.af.mil/museum).