Hundreds gather for Hill Air Force Base’s 80th Anniversary Celebration

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- The inaugural event held to commemorate Hill Air Force Base’s 80th anniversary was held at the Hill Aerospace Museum Jan. 18.

Hundreds attended throughout the day to admire the museum’s aircraft and exhibits, and to witness the first of a number of celebratory activities that will take place during the year.

Hill Air Force Base’s rich heritage over the past 80 years was founded on hard work, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, and excellence,” said Col. Jon Eberlan, 75th Air Base Wing commander. “As we have done from the beginning, we continue to generate world-class readiness and provide combat air power anytime, anywhere.”

At the event, base officials unveiled an 80th anniversary commemorative lithograph featuring the major weapon systems that Hill AFB’s men and women have repaired, maintained, operated and stored through the decades. The lithograph is available at the museum’s gift shop.

The 649th Munitions Squadron put on an ammunition assembly/disassembly demonstration for visitors.

However, the highlight of the event was the lineup of speakers. They included retired Air Force Cols. Jay Hess, a Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war during the conflict, James Sullivan, a world-record holder in the SR-71 Blackbird, and Gail Halvorsen, who is known worldwide as the “Berlin Candy Bomber.”

All of them spoke about their personal experiences.

Air Force (Ret.) Lt. Col. Jay Hess

Hess, an Ogden native, joined the Air Force in 1955. During his 20-year career that spanned the Cold War and Vietnam Conflict, he flew multiple aircraft including the F-102, F-105, and F-4. While flying a mission in August 1967, Hess was forced to eject and became a prisoner of war.

During his presentation, he spoke about joining the Air Force and his experiences as a POW during Vietnam.

He said it was approximately 10 years after Hill Field came into existence that he visited the base to get a flight physical and he flunked it.

“If I’d known how it would turn out, I wouldn’t have come back a couple years later and passed that flight physical,” Hess joked.

“Being a POW was ‘hell in session.’ It was no fun … when I tell my story, I get this response: ‘I could never do that,’” he said. “...there was a random process for those that were shot down. We didn’t pick who was shot down.”

He said in the prison camp, it was a different kind of war. Hess briefly talked about the one-on-one interrogations and the torture he and others endured.

“In real life, when it’s a good day, it goes fast. We say, ‘where did the time go?’ When it’s a real bad day, time slows down. Time goes real slow in POW camp,” he said.

“The will to live is amazingly strong …I was with great men in their finest hour,” Hess continued.

“Remember the families – moms, dads, wives, kids – of those who gave all and those who, like us, gave some,” Hess said. “…it has been an honor to serve this country and to be with you today.”

Air Force (Ret.) Col. James Sullivan

The next speaker was Sullivan who currently lives in Stansbury Park. He joined the Air Force in January 1956 and served for 29 years. Sullivan holds the current world speed record from New York to London, which he achieved on Sept. 1, 1974 in an SR-71.

Sullivan spoke briefly about his career and what it was like to fly the SR-71.

During his career, he flew a number of aircraft including the F-100 and F-105 that he flew in Vietnam. In Vietnam, he was shot down in December 1965, rescued, and flying again only three days later.

He later was qualified to fly the F-4 and eventually the SR-71 Blackbird.

The SR-71 was unique in a lot of ways,” Sullivan said. “When you fly it, you cruise at mach 3, which is why the airplane is 90% titanium and 10% steel, because it gets very hot.”

He said at mach 3 and altitude, you could put your hand on the windshield and your glove would start to smoke after about 4-5 seconds, because the temperature is over 400-degrees Celsius, or 800 degrees Fahrenheit, outside the aircraft.

“Everything about the aircraft was different. It was like riding on a bullet,” he continued.

Sullivan explained that SR-71 missions were generally above 75,000 feet. At that altitude, “… you can see the curvature of the earth.”

Then in 1974, Sullivan and his colleague Noel Widdiefield took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., on their way to the Farnborough Air Show in England.

With special permission, they were allowed to fly their SR-71 a little faster than normal, and when they got to altitude over New York at nearly 80,000 feet, they were able to set a world speed record from New York to London in 1 hour, 54 minutes and 56 seconds, with an average speed nearly 1,800 mph.

Air Force (Ret.) Col. Gail Halvorsen

Sullivan’s presentation was followed by Halvorsen. Halvorsen served from 1943-1974 in the Army Air Forces, which later became the Air Force. The Utah native became known for dropping candy from his aircraft to German children during the Berlin Airlift from 1948-1949.

Halvorsen grew up on a farm in Garland and competed for a flight scholarship before World War II. He earned his pilot license, bought an airplane, and joined the Army Air Corps when the war started.

The first time he flew into Berlin, Halovrsen said it looked like a moonscape.

“I couldn’t believe people lived like this” he said. “They needed flour and freedom, and we had both.”

The kids would stand at a barbed wire fence and watch the airplanes landing.

He said their pleas were: ‘We don’t have enough to eat. Don’t give up on us. We’ll get along with whatever you can give us, just don’t give up.’

Across the globe, Halvorsen said it was normal for children to ask for candy.

“Not one of them – all about 10 years old – asked for chocolate or gum. The kids were so wonderful and grateful,” he said.

“The idea that a person can come to this earth and they can make their own decisions …attitude depends on how we turn out,” Halvorsen said. “Attitude, being grateful, and service before self, these are the kind of things that make a difference.”

His testimony: “People are good all around the world, it’s the system that gets us locked up. How good it is to live in a country like this, the United States of America. …it’s a wonderful world.”

In 2020, a number of base events and activities will carry the theme “80 Years of Excellence.”

“This year, we honor the past and the incredible contributions of Hill Air Force Base to our nation’s defense,” Eberlan said. “It’s important we thank our community and the state of Utah for their continued support, and that we work to inspire the next generation of military and civilian Airmen to carry on the tradition of excellence.”

The public will be invited to Hill AFB’s Warriors Over the Wasatch Air and Space Show: 80 Years of Excellence this summer. This free June 27-28 show will be open to the public and feature the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron, the F-35A demonstration team, and dozens of other military and civilian aerial performances, as well as static displays.

Hill AFB traces its roots to 1934 when the operation of a temporary Air Corps depot in Salt Lake City, in place to support airmail operations, brought attention to senior military and civilian leaders, that northern Utah could be a possible site for a permanent air depot.

Later, Congress appropriated $8 million for construction of a base in July 1939 and by December of that year the War Department named the site "Hill Field" in honor of Maj. Ployer P. Hill.

Official groundbreaking for construction of Hill Field occurred Jan. 12, 1940. It was officially activated Nov. 1940

For more information about 80th events and activities, visit