Belmont pilot 'a kid in a candy shop' at Hiller Aviation Museum

Belmont pilot ‘a kid in a candy shop’ at Hiller Aviation Museum

in Community/Featured/Headline

William “Willie” Hugh Turner comes from a long line of William Hugh Turners—he is the sixth with that triple-barreled name. Like his grandfather who flew in WWI and his father in WWII, the 55-year-old Turner loves flying machines. Historic, lore-laden, story-telling vehicles of man’s quest to conquer the sky are Willie Turner’s passion. A licensed pilot, he credits great fortune for landing him 25 years ago at Hiller Aviation Museum, which for a guy with his background, is like putting a kid in a candy shop. 

The Turner family history within the United States stretches back to when Humphry Turner stepped foot in the American colonies after setting out from Kent, England in 1632—12 years after the Mayflower landing. Through the centuries, one Turner ancestor after another has fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War (the North on his father’s side, the South on his mother’s), and in the two world wars.  

“I’m afraid the military tradition was broken by me,” Turner says, although his younger son Anthony, 22, forged the link anew by becoming an Air Force pilot. Son William, the 26-year-old seventh in the line of William Hugh Turners, is a commercial pilot with an eye on the new U.S. Space Force.  

Generation after generation, though, the aviator gene has been handed down. The Turner men –and a notable woman — have pretty much been flying since the inception of the airplane. 

Turner’s father got the aviation bug as a kid in the 1930s watching air shows and he developed a love for golden age air racers, eventually building nine full-sized flying replicas of his favorite racers. He became known throughout the aerospace industry as the authority on historic planes and restoration techniques.  

Turner’s mother, Gail, herself a pilot and not one to be left behind, built two airplanes: The Pink Baroness, a 1976 Bowers Flyby, and a 1979 Marquart MA-5 Charger biplane christened the Duchess Papillion, both of which Turner still owns and flies. 

Raised in Belmont, in a house he and his wife Aileen live in today, and encouraged to fly by both parents, Turner received his pilot’s license at age 18 and enjoyed the enviable freedom of flying any number of classic, high powered racers.  

A scary adventure was inevitable.  

Turner’s one crash came on July 21, 1991, at San Carlos Airport. And it was a doozy. He was flying his father’s “Miss Los Angeles,” a rebuilt 1936 Brown B-2 racer with a powerful Ranger 200-horsepower engine, which had recently been featured in the Disney film “The Rocketeer.”  

“I had a bit of a bounce on landing so I decided to go around again. But against my father’s warning, I added full power and pulled up the flaps on the second attempt. The big engine and little wings immediately torch rolled on me and I found myself flying inverted heading right for the power lines along 101. Luckily (and ironically) the museum wasn’t there in those days or I would have plowed right into the side of it. I decided to force the plane in upside down to avoid the powerlines and the freeway.” 

By chance, Turner hit at a 45-degree angle, which broke the engine in half but absorbed the impact. A chain-link fence along Skyway Road acted in the same way an arresting cable on an aircraft carrier does, bringing the broken plane to a halt. It came to rest upside down. 

Luckily the plane did not catch fire, as there was gas leaking everywhere. Turner’s rescuers came running to help pull the young pilot from the wreckage.  

“Someone lifted the tail up and someone else slid under to get me out. They asked me a series of checklist questions and then asked how to get me out. I said to pull on the seatbelt harness so they did. Unfortunately, I was upside down so when they released it and I fell about three feet to the concrete on my head.” 

Turner had survived a high-speed landing—inverted—only to break his neck getting out of the cockpit, an injury he feels the effects of to this day. “I don’t blame the rescuers because they were only trying to help and the plane could have caught fire at any time. Plus, who even knows what they would have found when they lifted up the cockpit. I could have easily been decapitated.”  

 In 1995 Turner was between jobs and researching what he might want to do with his career. While interviewing the manager at San Carlos Airport, he discovered there ere plans under way to build an aviation museum across the way. Good fortune was waiting just across the runway.  

When Stanley Hiller Jr. was laying plans for his museum, he went to the elder Turner and asked if the renowned restoration artist would head up the renovation department at the museum. “My dad said no as he was living in L.A., but would be glad to help set it up,” Turner recalls, “at the same time I was with him in all the meetings with Mr. Hiller. One day Dad couldn’t make a meeting, so he said, ‘You meet with Hiller—and take your resume.’”  

Hiller had hired retired Major General Jerry Shoemacher to get his new museum off the ground and Shoemacher said he needed a righthand man. Hiller hired Willie Turner, making him effectively employee Number 1 (the general insisted on being a short-term independent contractor). Turner became the fledgling museum’s “jack of all trades,” handling all aspects of operations, promotion and anything else that came up. The museum broke ground in 1996 and opened the doors in June of 1998. 

Hiller’s idea of the museum was one of aviation education and awareness more than the display of historic aircraft. In fact, his vision was for an institute of higher thinking and innovation for the industry. An aviation think tank. And as much as that element of the mission was never realized, education has been a central part of the museum’s fabric. 

“The museum has changed so much over the years,” says Turner. “Our educational programs have become huge thanks to our vice president of education, John Welte, who has completely turned the education department around. When we first started conducting camps it was for one week during the summer with 15 kids attending, and now we hold camps in the summer, spring and winter for over 1,500 students.”  

The lessons range from the basics of how an airplane flies to subjects like avionics, weather and physics. Topics directly relate to the STEM lessons teachers need demonstrated, fitting within the grade level required. 

“What’s great having been here so long is that I now have kids coming back to visit after becoming pilots,” Turner says with pride. 

From school field trips and week-long day camps that cater to kindergarten through elementary grades to corporate parties and premier events, Turner oversees them all—more than 50 per year.  

“This is a fun place to work,” says Turner. “We have great leadership that is willing to try new things all the time. We go by, ‘If we can think it we can try it.’ There is a real inspiration here to be creative.” 

The museum’s premier events have included Vertical Challenge, a unique helicopter-centered show, that over 13 years ultimately involved more than 50 hovering craft and attracted an audience of 8,000 for a two-day event. It grew so large for the available space that it became a victim of its own success, and the Federal Aviation Administration eventually stepped in and put the clamps on. Other events have included the Biggest Little Air Show, the Day of Drones, Noon Years, and various aviation lecture series.  

As the Hiller Museum’s Vice President of Operations & Communications, Turner is responsible for the everyday health and well-being of the building, while managing the marketing department and creating promotional events. Somehow that doesn’t aptly describe Turner’s contributions. 

The museum’s CEO, Jeffery Bass, perhaps says it best: “In many ways Willie embodies the heart and soul of the museum’s dedication to aviation adventure. He is a skilled pilot and aircraft owner with a decades-long track record of successful involvement in numerous airshows on the West Coast. He is the mastermind behind most of the museum’s aviation-focused events, from high-adrenaline helicopter airshows to scholarly lectures about aviation history.” 

Annual attendance at Hiller Museum now stands at 100,000. A long way from opening day in 1998. Hiller would be proud — and glad he tapped a young flyboy from an aviation family to help build his dream museum. 

 This story was originally published in the February print edition of Climate Magazine.