Honoring a pioneer: Ployer ‘Pete’ Hill

Honoring a pioneer: Ployer ‘Pete’ Hill

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Hill Air Force Base, but have you ever wondered where the base got its name? Moreover, if you know the base is named after Ployer “Pete” Hill, who was he and what can we remember about him?

Hill was a pioneer aviator. He piloted nearly every Army Air Corps aircraft between 1918 and 1935 during his highly successful career as an engineer, aerial photographer and test pilot. He died due to injuries sustained in a crash of the experimental Boeing Model 299, the prototype of the renowned B-17 Flying Fortress. 

“He was,” Lieutenant Colonel John Brooks wrote a month after Ployer’s death, “a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word, he was a soldier of special distinction and finally he was a splendid pilot.”

Hill was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1894, to Charles Hill and Lillie Ployer. A scholar-athlete at Brown University, Hill served as president of the Engineering Society and earned the prestigious Clark Trophy for his gymnastic talents.

He graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1916 and joined the Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917, the year the U.S. entered World War I. The war ended while Hill trained as a bombardment pilot, but big opportunities were in store for the young pilot. 

Shortly after the war, in 1920, Hill married Helen Toppan, also of Massachusetts, and received his promotion to first lieutenant. In September, the newlyweds moved to Germany for Hill’s two years of service with the American Army of Occupation. 

Upon returning to the States, Hill was assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he flew in early ground-support training exercises with the 12th Aero Squadron. After Texas, Hill trained in aerial photography at Chanute Field, Illinois. 

Excelling as a pilot and as a photographer, Hill commanded the 14th photo section at Mitchell Field in New York. From 1929 to 1932, Hill commanded the 6th photo section at Nichols Field in the Philippines. 

Hill was also the model family man. Helen and Ployer golfed, played tennis and read together. A proud father, Hill boasted to his mother that his son “ran like the wind and perhaps will be a famous track athlete when he goes to college.” 

Hill’s riskiest assignment came in 1932. That year, Hill began his duty as a test pilot and Chief of the Flying Branch of the Materiel Division at Wright Field, Ohio. Hill frequently flew from Wright Field to contractors’ plants and provided valuable feedback on the performance and capabilities of the aircraft he tested. In 1935, he was promoted to Chief of the Flying Branch of the Materiel Division, with the temporary rank of major. 

On Oct. 30, 1935, Hill took off in the Boeing Model 299. Unaware that the plane’s wind gust locks were still engaged on the elevators and rudder had not been unlocked, the plane climbed to 100 feet and crashed. Hill and Boeing’s chief test pilot, Leslie Tower, died as a result of the crash.

Hill’s sacrifice, Brigadier General A.W. Robins stated, “was as great as though he had been lost on the field of battle.” 

In 1939, General “Hap” Arnold recommended that the War Department name the newly selected Ogden Air Depot Hill Field in honor of Ployer Hill, who, Arnold asserted, “was one of our best and richly deserved the honor.” 

As we celebrate the base’s 75th anniversary, let us remember that Hill demonstrated excellence and bravery in every aspect of his career and sacrificed his life in the service of his country. 

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