Hill Air Force Base Aviation Museum

The Preservation of Emotion, Excitement and Struggle

By 1948, with more than 10,000 of them in service, the AT-6 Texan was already the most widely used aircraft in history. The single engine simple plane, with a 600 hp Pratt and Whitney engine and 42-foot wingspan, had been used as a trainer first in the U.S. and then in Canada and Britain, where the 'Texan' moniker was replaced with 'Harvard.' During the Korean War the Texan was put into use again as a flight trainer and a high altitude reconnaissance plane which flew 'mosquito missions' over North Korea to spot enemy troops and guns and mark them with smoke rockets for attack by fighter bombers.

But it was not until the 1960s and later that the AT-6 Texan gained true popular notoriety: the plane resembled the Japanese Zero fighter plane of WWII - the Zeke - and when it came time for Hollywood to recreate the fierce Japanese fighter, which became quite rare after their loss in 1945, movie producers quickly turned to the Texan and its clean and simples lines.

It's semblance, I'd say, but not duplicity - careful viewers will notice that the Zero has an elegantly curved all-glass cockpit bubble, while the Texan has a slightly more angular, steel-lined cockpit bubble. Typically, the Zero carried one pilot, while the Texan had room for a pilot and co-pilot. And the Zero, of course, has guns, something the Texan lacks.

Regardless of Hollywood intentions, an unadorned Texas hangs from a corner of the Hill Air Force Base Aviation Museum, a pocket of history among the launching jets of Utah's largest air force field. The Texan is one of dozens of meticulously restored planes hanging or resting in the museum's two cavernous indoor show rooms or outdoor field that attracts the gaze of motorists on nearby Interstate 15.

And the Texan by no means has the most interesting history. Take, for example, the Lockheed P-38J Lightning, the two-engine long-distance fighter the Germans named the 'fork-tailed devil.' The P-38 had fuselages extending back from each of the two powerful 1,475 hp Allison engines. Each fuselage was joined by a common tail and 58-foot span wing, with a cockpit and separate smaller fuselage in the middle front.

Into the Park

The plane's unusual design kept it out of combat for the first several years of WWII. Designed in 1937 as a high-altitude interceptor, the plane was not into large scale operations until 1942, when it flew in North Africa and soon gained a loyal following. The plane, armed with four 50-caliber machine guns and one 20-mm cannon, had a top speed of 414 mph and saw action in all major combat areas as not just a fighter but also a reconnaissance flyer and a bomber.

But after the war, few of the P-38s, dubbed by American flyers 'Lightning,' remained. The one resting in the Hill Field museum was pulled from its wreckage site in Alaska in 1993 and restored piece by piece - the plane's condition was so poor, in fact, the museum personnel have left some of the original parts, such as a machine gun and engine, next to the mint machine.

A Note to Readers

If there is a worth to the preservation and display of historic airplanes, it seems to be two-fold: one is that many of these planes are simply rare and ought to be preserved; the second is that many of the planes evoke a strong and meaningful memory of a particular theater or war, or the type of person who might fly a plane high over enemy territory, or the emotion and excitement of such a battle, one before computer guidance and network television dulled the contact of combat.

The Hill Field museum is full of planes - it's the best collection in Utah, and one of the best in the West. Other planes include a B-25 bomber, B-17, B-24, and an SR-71, as well as a host of Korea and Vietnam-era fighters, helicopters and transport planes. Also inside are biographies of Utahns who served in the Air Force, models of planes not included in the collection, suit and personal armament displays, and aviation art. The museum also has a gift shop which sells expensive models and very inexpensive balsa wood and Styrofoam fliers.

The museum is open daily year round. Admission is free.

Perhaps like the cars of today, the planes of today seem to be much safer, much stronger, much better prepared for battle. Meanwhile, it would seem unimaginable to go into battle in one of the planes of yesterday - they are either too thin, two esoteric, or too vulnerable. That is precisely what makes them, and their preservation, so unique and important.

Check out this week's photo gallery.

Jeff's Bio

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