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VOL. 36 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 20, 2012

Hill’s passion: Old planes, training young pilots

By Tim Ghianni

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Bob Hill turns his vocation into his avocation when he hops into the cockpit of a B-17 bomber at the end of his work week as FAA Safety Team program manager at the Nashville Flight Standards District Office near the old airport terminal.

Perhaps this day the World War II aircraft is going on a run to Cincinnati. Or perhaps it’s just going to Smyrna to take on a load of World War II veterans who wish to recount their death-defying heroism over Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

Or else he may be doing the same thing with a B-25, the preferred mode of transport for Jimmy Doolittle’s 30 seconds over Tokyo. Then there’s always the trusty “pig boat” – PBY Catalina – used on all fronts, but especially effective in the Pacific Theater.

“My favorite plane is the one I’m flying at the moment, “ says the 56-year-old aviation professional who spends his weeks educating and testing pilots on their skills with sea planes and forestry tankers – “some call them fire bombers” – and his weekends serving history by flying historic planes from locale to locale.

“My favorite part of doing that is the veterans,” he says, talking about the WWII men and women who come to visit him when he taxis onto the tarmac at airports around the country and lets those people visit and sometimes even go for rides in the historic craft.

“The history lives on,” he says. “I get to play a B-17 pilot, but I’ve never been a real one. It was not of my era.”

A hint of regret flavors his words when he talks of the men and women who clamber aboard his machines and recount, with great humility, their airborne roles in saving the world.

Hill – who has never flown a jet aircraft in his mostly airborne life and who admires the power and the engineering marvels of these heroic propeller machines – must live vicariously by having the real pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners scrawl their signatures in his trip books.

“I enjoy the veterans,” he says, describing the books filled with the names of warplane pilots and crewmen who have visited him at every stop.

“They sign with their name, group, squadron, missions and if they were POWs, they sign their Stalag. These books have hundreds of signatures.

“I once made the comment (to a World War II pilot) that I was born in the wrong era and that I should have been flying with him and his guys. He told me ‘Bob, we are all of our own time, and this time is yours,’ ” Hill says.

“The older I am now, I appreciate this more.”

In other words, while the men of World War II, the guys who flew these planes for real and for keeps, have lived their lives, it is up to Hill to carry on their story and keep their aircraft active.

“I hope to be flying these until I’m 70,” he says.

His mission is to keep fresh this “slice of history” and to salute the memory of these heroes long after they are gone.

“They are not only great for what they accomplished when this country was in great danger, they were the same people that, post-WWII, created the economic superpower that the U.S. would become. We owe a lot to that generation.”

His voice coats with emotion when he talks about those airmen, what they did as well as the honor he gets by meeting them on weekends throughout the year, when he takes the antique planes into airports around the country.

One afternoon last week, just after landing the Memphis Belle in Geneseo, N.Y., Hill was greeted by Earl Morrow, pilot of a B-17 shot down over Germany. He was a POW in Stalag Luft III, launching point for the real Great Escape (an adventure described in best-selling book and later heroically exaggerated on film.)

Hill had similar experiences when he recently flew the B-17 Memphis Belle – by the way, it’s not the real one, but “The Hollywood one, made for the movie” – to Smyrna as part of the Liberty Foundation’s work.

Money raised by taking either veterans or curious air enthusiast for a $450-for-25-minute “spin” goes toward restoration of the Liberty Belle, the foundation’s primary B-17 that was damaged by fire a year ago.

“We should have her flying again in four years,” Hill says.

Being a civilian peacetime warbird pilot in the skies over California, Alaska, Upstate New York or Smyrna is purely for pleasure and not profit for, says Hill, who volunteers his weekends for the sake of history.

His weekdays are spent flying to airports around the country to test pilots seeking certification in seaplanes and forestry tankers.

“I do gliders, as well,” he says.

“I give the pilots the practical test that they have to pass to get their licenses. I’m the person they don’t want to see coming. I usually sit in the right seat and function as co-pilot, as well as examiner. It’s pretty hard, really, since I have to be a good and efficient first officer, but at the same time I’m inducing simulated scenarios in abnormal situations.”

In other words, he cooks up difficulties and sees how the pilots handle them. When he’s not working in the air as the nation’s expert in the pig boats and the fire bombers, he’s working on educational materials and programs for aspiring pilots.

The career he began at age 40 followed a couple decades of practical experience at throttles of prop planes coast-to-coast.

“I developed a lot of experience in a lot of airplanes,” he says, noting that he has “given 4,300 hours of flight instruction” during his life.

“I’ve also towed banners, flown skydivers and, of course, I was the proverbial freight-hauling pilot.”

He also flew tankers to help put out forest fires, which is where he learned one of the specialties that led to his FAA job, which focuses on his work with prop planes.

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“I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. While piloting flying fortresses and pig boats for the Liberty Foundation and the Military Aviation Museum (in Virginia Beach, Va.) on weekends is a genuine kick and an answer to his calling, his daily work also fits into the “dream category.”

“As a young person growing up in Rochester, N.Y., while my friends wanted to fly for whatever airline at the time, I was the guy that was always looking to go fly the vintage airplane and haul freight.

“As a child, I was weaned on old TV programs like 12 O’Clock High (based on the book and classic film about B-17 runs over Europe) and Sky King (a Saturday morning kids program about a heroic pilot who flew “out of the blue of the Western sky” on a baby boomer Saturday morning adventure show.

“And then there are the books,” he adds. “I loved to read Ernest K. Gann (a 1930s American Airlines pilot who hauled freight and personnel for the U.S. when World War II began and wrote airborne heroism yarns after).

“Like any child I grew up building model airplanes, and all the things that someone of my generation would have done, never realizing that this is what I’d be doing one day.”

He’s been flying for the museum since 2002 and began volunteering to pilot for the Liberty Foundation since Day 1. After piloting many debugging flights, he was at the controls when the Liberty Belle began giving rides on the weekend of July 4, 2005.

“I do 210 hours a year in that airplane. When you are doing 25-minute rides, that’s a lot.”

So what’s the best ride? Well, like he says, he’s happy with the one he’s flying at the time, but a B-25 is “a nice-flying World War II airplane.”

And while his weekend flights in vintage craft fill his heart and not his wallet, he says there are professional benefits in that each flight gives him experiences he can use when educating modern-day prop pilots.

“There’s always the challenge of the machine. Of all the years I’ve flown these planes, I enjoy the personal challenge of that technology. My career has been with that technology for the most part. I’m the FAA’s anachronism.”

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