Ambitious vision out to preserve historic Wendover Airfield

Published May 3, 2012 7:40 am
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The historic Wendover Airfield often stands silent in the harsh desert environment. Save for the efforts of a few dedicated souls, it could easily become nothing more than, to quote a Kansas song, "dust in the wind."

This is the place where more than 20,000 members of the old Army Air Force gathered in the middle of World War II to train for a secret mission that would change the course of history. The 509th Composite Group came here to train to drop atomic bombs on Japan.

Airport director Jim Petersen and a volunteer board hope this won't be a place where history is forgotten. They have big dreams for what is the most intact World War II vintage Army Air Force base in the world.

The problem is finding enough visitors and donors willing to help pay to preserve it.

The group's board of directors met a few weeks ago to kick around some ideas, share some interesting statistics and do a little dreaming of what could be done if money was not a problem.

The number of visitors to Wendover is impressive. Some 60,000 arrive on casino gaming flights each year, enough to compete with St. George as Utah's second busiest commercial airport. Another three million vehicles pass through the area each year on Interstate 80. The town's casinos host about 2.5 million visitors annually as well as an air show and several speed trial racing events on the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats.

The site has also been used to film actions movies such as "Con Air" and "Independence Day."

Yet only about 7,000 visitors each year actually take the time to explore the historic airfield.

Petersen has dreams of increasing that number to 100,000 visitors in five years and 200,000 in 10 years. He has set a fundraising goal of $5 million, largely to complete work on turning an old officer's club into a combined museum, restaurant with a historic military mess hall theme, conference center and community building. He also wants to finish restoration of the Enola Gay hangar.

The group's ambitious vision is to turn all that into the National Army Air Force Museum, make it Utah's western gateway, and become part of a Utah Military History Museum Network.

The key, as always, is funding. Petersen thinks the museum could host such activities as aircraft simulators, control tower re-enactments and training experiences that history buffs would pay to enjoy. The area could be rented out for movies. Salt Flat racers sometimes rent space during Speed Week.

The board is looking for public-private partnerships to use some of the many buildings. And it is working with Wendover casinos to generate more tourist traffic.

Operating often with little more than a wing, a prayer and a sense of duty, the Historic Wendover Airfield Board has organized air shows, offered facility tours, written up driving tours, worked with casinos, improved a small museum and found grant money to preserve the Enola Gay hangar, which was in danger of falling over.

Members took to heart words written by the late Gen. Paul Tibbets, the commander of the 509th Composite Group who named the Enola Gay after his mother.

"Time and apathy must not be allowed to let this historic area degrade until nothing is left of our training field," Tibbets wrote.

Preserving the ghost-like base on the outskirts of the Salt Flats is a daunting task but, without the board's efforts, the base could easily fade into the dust of history.

wharton@sltrib.comTwitter @tribtomwharton



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