Vintage airplanes recall glory days of Hamilton Field

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April 11--Few men can remember the days when the skies over Novato's Hamilton Field were filled with propeller-driven fighters and bombers on their way to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Fewer still can describe what it was like to fly one.

Col. William Palmer is one of those men.

"The P-38 was a very fine, stable airplane -- two engines, counter-rotating, without any torque to battle," said the Novato resident, who spent much of World War II flying the legendary P-38 "Lightning," a fighter plane. "The B-17 (bomber) was quite a bit different. Flying it was like driving a truck after driving a racing car."

At least 12,232 Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortresses" were built

between 1935 and 1945. Only 12 are still capable of flight. One, the "Liberty Belle," made stops at the Hayward Executive Airport this past weekend and will be in Santa Rosa on Saturday.

Visitors can tour the vintage airplane for free or pay to take a flight, seeing for themselves what veterans like Palmer experienced during the war. The bomber is one of two aircraft on a nationwide tour by the Georgia-based Liberty Foundation.

"We're losing 1,500 World War II veterans every day," said Scott Maher, director of flight operations for the Liberty Foundation, who says many of his visitors are former flight crews -- or their children. "People want to understand what their fathers or grandfathers went through."

While Hamilton

Field began its military life as a bomber installation, few "Flying Fortresses" ever landed in Novato, even during its heyday as a wartime training facility.

"The B-17 was larger, faster and heavier than other planes, and needed a longer, stronger runway," said Edna Manzoni, a member of the Novato Historical Guild who helped compile a history of Hamilton Field. "In 1939, (Hamilton's) 7th Bombardment Group was designated a heavy bomb group, and moved to Ft. Douglas, Utah to train with the B-17s."

Yet it was a group of B-17s from Hamilton that found itself in the middle of one of World War II's worst cases of mistaken identity. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, radar operators on the island of Oahu identified what they thought was a flight of four B-17s flying from Hamilton to Hawaii's Hickam Field (the bombers had stopped at Hamilton on their way from a base in New Orleans). What the operators actually saw was a Japanese force on its way to attack Pearl Harbor.

The real B-17s "after flying all night, arrived over Oahu at the height of the air attack on Hawaii," Manzoni said.

Those who fly aboard the restored "Liberty Belle" will find little in the way of creature comforts. None of the "Flying Fortesses" were heated or pressurized -- each member of the 10-person crew plugged his flight suit into an electric heating system, and wore an oxygen mask during the flight. Such masks aren't necessary for today's low-altitude flights.

"There was no insulation," said David Lyon, a co-pilot for the Liberty Foundation. "They had to endure the cold as best they could."

The B-17's four mighty engines also provide a rougher ride than modern air travelers might expect, except in its glassed-in nose, where a crystal-clear view of the ground below is still available through the airplane's bomb sight.

The other star of the Liberty Foundation's nationwide tour is an aircraft with a long history at Hamilton Field -- the Curtiss P-40E Warhawk fighter plane. Two Warhawk fighter groups trained at Hamilton during the war: the 369th, from Aug. 1 to Nov. 5, 1943, and the 372nd, from Oct. 28 to Dec. 7, 1943.

"In those days they were in a rush to get us into a unit and overseas," said Palmer, who graduated from flight school in August, reported to Hamilton in September, and was on his way to England by November. Palmer learned to fly the P-38, another fighter, at what was then a sub-base of Hamilton: Mills Field, which later became San Francisco International Airport.

Palmer flew 52 missions out of North Africa, escorting formations of B-17 "Flying Fortresses" and B-24 "Liberators" to attack enemy installations in Germany and Eastern Europe.

"Our job was to keep (German fighters) away from the bombers, and we'd often get into a little bit of a scramble," said Palmer, 90. "They had very good aircraft and highly-trained pilots, and we were greenhorns."

Nevertheless, Palmer's fighter group consistently held its own against the more experienced Germans, he said.

"There was one occasion where I had mechanical trouble, and had to shut down one of my engines," Palmer recalled. "At the same time we were in a scramble with some German fighters, and one of them was on my tail, giving me some problems. I was able to get away, and several of my buddies joined in the conflict and drove them off.

"You were on your toes up there," Palmer added. "You'd better be."

The Liberty Foundation's P-40 and B-17 are among the last of a dwindling number of World War II aircraft that remain accessible to visitors outside of museums. Both have been painstakingly restored after significant damage to each plane: the foundation's B-17 was torn in half by a tornado in 1979, after having been sold for scrap -- like countless other surplus aircraft at the end of the war -- in 1947.

"A lot of (B-17s) were bought just for the oil and gas inside them, which at the time were considered to be worth more than the airplane," Lyon said.

The P-40's story is even more bizarre. After the Warhawk crashed in Alaska in 1941, the airplane remained buried near the airfield for more than 50 years, until aircraft enthusiasts dug up and restored the frozen remains.

Members of the Liberty Foundation fear the cost of maintaining their planes could someday spell the end of their tour. The foundation spends about $1.5 million annually on maintenance, one reason why a half-hour flight on the "Liberty Belle" now costs visitors $430 -- and a 15-minute flight in the P-40 costs them $1,050.

The price of fuel is another problem -- it now costs the foundation about $4,500 per flight hour to operate the B-17, and about $2,000 per flight hour to fly the P-40. Federal aviation regulations add to the cost.

"The whole plane has to be broken down and inspected every 25 flight hours," Maher said.

Palmer, who served as an administrator at Hamilton in the early days of the U.S. Air Force, and later flew both fighters and bombers during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, said he's considering traveling to Santa Rosa to see the visiting planes. Having retired in 1972 -- one year before the Air Force left Hamilton Field -- Palmer still misses the sound of propellers whirring over Novato.

"I was sorry to see (Hamilton) close," Palmer said. "It had been a very important base; it was a very fine installation. But that was what the powers-that-be decided."

Contact Rob Rogers via email at rrogers@marinij.com

war plane tours

The Liberty Foundation's "2011 Salute to Veterans Tour" will appear at the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa on Saturday. Tours and flights will be available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 918-340-0243 or visit www.libertyfoundation.org.

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