Hill AFB Museum unveils new exhibit honoring its namesake

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Although it’s perched on a mound of high ground just beneath the mighty Wasatch Mountains, Hill Air Force Base is not named after its rolling landscape. It’s named after a man who gave his life for his country.

Base officials hope a new exhibit featuring Major Ployer “Pete” Hill will celebrate the man the installation is named after and also help clear up what seems to be a common misconception in Northern Utah.

“People think it’s named ’Hill Air Force Base’ because it’s on a hill,” said Kent Bingham, creator of the exhibit and the base’s graphic design artist of more than 20 years. “So I hope this helps people realize this place was named after a man.”

Bingham said the exhibit was created with help of museum volunteer and history doctorate Lia Winfield and base historian Aaron Clark. Work on the exhibit started in July 2014, and the March 27 unveiling coincided with the 75th anniversary of when construction began on “Hill Field,” as the base was known in the early 1940s

Displayed on a large wall right near the museum’s main entrance, the glossy, 24-by-6-foot static exhibit features several large photographs of Ployer Hill and his wife Helen, as well as historical documents, letters and newspaper clippings. The exhibit was funded by donations from the Aerospace Heritage Foundation of Utah.

According to a Hill library fact sheet, Ployer Hill “was known as an extremely capable and meticulous pilot, and an officer and gentleman of truly great distinction.”

In an aviation career that spanned 18 years, Ployer Hill piloted nearly 60 of the Army Air Corps’ newest and best aircraft, testing and evaluating their capabilities for service, according to the fact sheet. 

Hill was born in Newburyport, Mass., on Oct. 24, 1894, where he attended both grammar school and high school. In 1916 he graduated from Brown University with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. A year after graduating from Brown, Hill enlisted in the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps.

In 1920, he served with the American Army of Occupation in Germany, where he worked as the Engineer Officer of the Air Service Flying Station in Weissenthurm. After several other stints that took him to Texas, New York, Washington, D.C. and the Philippines, and included work as an aerial photography instructor, he landed at what would be his final assignment, at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

There, he served as a test pilot and Assistant Chief of Planes and Engines in the Maintenance Unit and as the Chief of the Flying Branch of the Material Division. His work included flight testing and evaluating an array of new military aircraft, including the Consolidated P-30, the Martin B-10 and B-12, and several others.

On Oct. 30, 1935, Hill died after he crashed flying the Boeing experimental aircraft Model 299, a plane that served as the prototype for what would eventually become the famous B-17 Flying Fortress of World War II. 

In 1939, the U.S. War Department named the site of the Ogden Air Depot “Hill Field” in honor of Ployer Hill. In 1948, it was renamed Hill Air Force Base.

Bingham said he’s created thousands of projects in his more than 20 years on base, but the Ployer Hill exhibit is without a doubt his favorite.

“It’s the single project I’m most proud of,” he said. “Not because of the design, but because of the history and emotion behind it. I hope people can connect with the man that was Ployer Hill and glimpse into the past. It was a privilege to design it.”

Hill’s grandchildren, retired Lt. Col. Douglas Hill and Gail Hill-Smith attended Friday’s unveiling ceremony at the museum.

Douglas Hill said he hopes the exhibit will inspire future generations to pursue careers in the military.

“My hope is that young people will come in and see this and think about joining our uniformed services,” he said. “And maybe even fly an airplane.”