Air Force museum sees big climb in visitors

New hangar displaying presidential planes, research aircraft leads to more visitors.

A new $40.8 million hangar with Air Force One presidential jets and exotic, record-setting research aircraft boosted the number of visitors over 24 percent in the year since the long-anticipated expansion opened at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, figures show.

The Miami Valley’s top tourist attraction counted 938,691 visitors from opening in June 2016 to the end of May 2017. That compares to 754,647 patrons to the world’s largest military aviation museum between June 2015 and May 2016, the museum reported.

Bringing the presidential plane collection and one-of-kind research planes once housed in a restricted-access hangar at Wright-Patterson to the new Presidential, Research, Space, and Global Reach galleries, plus a giant Titan IV rocket tipped on its side, and new “learning nodes” teaching science and history lessons to school children all factored into the higher numbers, a museum leader said.

“When you couple all those things together … that drives the numbers and it drives the public satisfaction with what they can see when they come here,” said NMUSAF Director John “Jack” Hudson.

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The biggest influx of visitors since the opening was last July which counted 135,901 people. So far this year, attendance peaked in the month of April with 109,715 visitors, many of whom came to Doolittle Raiders ceremonies to catch a glimpse of 101-year-old Richard E. Cole, a Dayton native and sole surviving Raider who highlighted the 75th anniversary event marking the first U.S. raid against Japan in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The rise in patrons shows the drawing power as one of the top attractions in Ohio.

“The addition that they have built is really resonating with people to either come again and visit or to visit for the first time,” said Mary Cusick, director of TourismOhio. “They’re a really important partner in the state when it comes to tourism and especially in selling that part of the state.”

The Air Force museum has a projected $40 million regional economic impact.

“The museum is the largest free attraction in the state of Ohio and certainly our region benefits tremendously from people who come from outside the region,” said Jacquelyn Powell, Dayton Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO.

Still, overall attendance numbers were less than other recent years, figures show. The museum counted 1,089,980 visitors between June 2014 and May 2015 compared to 986,044 visitors between June 2013 to May 2014, released numbers indicated.

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Among other reasons, Hudson attributed the decline to fewer special events, such as the canceled Freedom’s Call Tattoo that drew tens of thousands to the museum grounds, and a drop in veterans’ reunions once buoyed in large measure by World War II-associated groups that have dwindled as time has passed.

In Ohio, the number of tourists and tourism-generated dollars has climbed in recent years. Last year, direct tourism spending accounted for $34 billion, a $1 billion increase over 2015. Tourists visits reached 212 million last year, five million more than 2015, TourismOhio figures show. Forty-two million of those stops represented stays by overnight visitors who tend to spend more than three times as much as day-trip visitors.

Montgomery County lodging numbers have stayed “flat” at about 54 percent occupancy compared to last year while hotel lodging rates have risen about 5 percent, Powell said.

The Air Force One collection, found nowhere else in the world, is a big driver for visitors to the Air Force museum, said Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance headquartered in Dayton.

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“You can’t see those planes anyplace else and those airplanes are so historic,” he said. “That’s not necessarily Air Force history, that’s American history.

“If you were some visitor from France or some visitor from Paris, Texas, you might not have the least bit of interest to go see an F-86 (fighter jet) or an F-4, but you would have an interest in going to see Air Force One,” he added.

Sculimbrene said the community needs to fund an advertising budget to reach more people. Outside groups financed a $250,000 advertising push into major regional markets weeks in advance of the museum expansion opening last year.

“What we need to do is get back to the collaborative advertising approach,” he said. “It’s not happening.”

TourismOhio will feature a family visiting the museum and several other locations in a television commercial set to debut in August and the state tourism agency refers to it in content at its website, Cusick said.

In May, the Air Force announced it had awarded the museum the Air Force Heritage Award for the privately funded expansion.

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