SALT LAKE CITY — James Dean Hill flew 25 missions as a B-17 pilot during World War II, including the last bombing run the 8th Air Force flew as the war in Europe was winding down.
On Monday, for only the second time since the war ended, an 88-year-old Hill climbed along the catwalk through the bomb bay and into the cockpit of a vintage B-17 as it circled the skies above the Salt Lake valley. The flight promoted a show-and-tell this weekend, May 7 and 8, at the Salt Lake Jet Center on the east side of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
Hill was a sophomore at Ricks College when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Like most young men of his generation, his focus turned toward the war effort, and he longingly eyed the lineup of P-38 fighters near his training station in Santa Ana, Calif. "That's what I wanted to fly," he remembers.
Then, the coordinator of his flying class told the group: "I might as well tell you right now, I'm here to train you to be bomber pilots."
"I thought, 'Uh oh — there goes the P-38,'" Hill said.
The B-29 Enola Gay is probably the most famous single aircraft of World War II, but it was the B-17s that became the enduring trademark for the air war in Europe.
Hill still works three days a week as a civil engineer. And though his war experiences took place 67 years ago, he is still emotional when talking about his comrades who did not come home. "Gathering up their uniforms and sending their personal things home to their wives — that is still hard to think about."
He has one other thing to say to those who look back on World War II: "War is not emboldening."
Keeping that history alive is why the not-for-profit Liberty Foundation takes its vintage warbirds on tour. In addition to the bomber, the group will have a P-40 Warhawk in Salt Lake City. Both will be available to walk through or fly in for a fee.
This particular B-17 was built near the end of the war and immediately put into storage. Though it did not see wartime service, its history has been filled with calamities, nonetheless. Brand new, it was sold for scrap, then repurchased by engine maker Pratt & Whitney for $2,700 and fitted with a fifth engine on its nose as a test plane. Later a tornado that ripped through a museum where it was on display and dropped another plane equal in size on top of the bomber, breaking it in half.
It underwent a 14-year renovation and was named the "Liberty Belle" in honor of a B-17 by the same name that flew over Europe. The tail gunner of the original was foundation principal Dan Brooks' father.
The Liberty Foundation's P-40 has also had a challenging history. It crashed on landing in Alaska in 1941, before World War II even started, and the military simply buried it. More than 50 years later, a group of collectors used military records to locate the burial location and recover the wreckage. A second seat for a passenger was added during its restoration, according to the Liberty Foundation.
Flights in the B-17 cost $395 to $430, and P-40 flights cost $950 to $1,050, with the lower price going to Liberty Foundation members. The revenue is used to offset the $1.5 million it costs each year to keep the two planes flying. Public flights will take place Saturday and Sunday morning with ground tours available in the afternoons. The exhibit each day runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.