Vintage airplanes recall glory days of Hamilton Field

-- 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...


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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