Air Force Museum closed, workers stay on the job

The Air Force museum reopened to the public and 822 visitors Monday and then officials decided to close the region’s top tourist attraction Tuesday until Congress passes a spending resolution or a final defense appropriations bill.

The museum has 1 million visitors a year.

The temporary closure will have a big impact on tourism and military reunion groups who travel from all parts of the country to the world’s oldest military aviation museum as a destination place, tourism officials said. The museum has a $40 million a year economic impact, figures show.

“We have heard from some of the Greene County hotels that they have had guests cancel because of the museum closure,” said Kathleen Young, executive director of the Greene County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That hurts.”

Museum officials did not grant a request Tuesday to interview workers, but a spokeswoman said in an email members were working “on a variety of activities, including research, planning inventory management, etc.” The museum could not provide a daily payroll breakdown, but it has a $10 million annual civilian payroll for 95 employees, according to Diana Bachert, museum spokeswoman.

The museum reopened Monday “pending further clarification of guidance from the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” then shut the next day because “the museum, as a community engagement activity” did not meet exemptions to continue operating during the shutdown, such as direct support of military operations, or the protection of life and property, Bachert said in an email.

The museum also released a comment from Director John “Jack” Hudson, a retired Air Force lieutenant general.

“Museum employees are grateful for the opportunity to return to work and continue to collect and preserve the materiel culture of the U.S. Air Force,” the statement said. “While we are not able to provide public engagement at this point, we are continuing our vital mission through planning and development of future exhibits, preserving and restoring American icons such as the Memphis Belle, developing educational programs and curricular products and event planning such as the Doolittle Raider Final Toast (in November) to further tell the rich story of the United States Air Force.”

As of Tuesday, no military reunion groups canceled trips to the museum, Young said, but the site represents “a major, major draw for us here and again we’re going to have that trickle down effect on tourism,” she said. “That’s our taxes that keep those places open and it just doesn’t seem fair that they can take that away from our veterans.”

Richard Roberts, an Air Force veteran from Richmond, Ind., was turned away at the museum gate Tuesday.

He worked on F-86 Sabre fighter jets in the early 1950s. He said his wife called museum staff on Monday and she was told the storehouse of historic planes and artifacts was open to the public.

“The reason we called was because we didn’t think it would be open because of the government shutdown,” he said. “It’s very disappointing to drive all the way back over here and (we’ve) got to drive back now.”

Inside the museum, National Aviation Hall of Fame enshrinement director Ron Kaplan and two staff members were on the job, but Kaplan was “steamed” the museum was closed for an enshrinement dinner honoring four inductees last week. The event was moved to the Hope Hotel and Conference Center.

It was “a heart-breaking experience” to have the Oct. 4 ceremony and the honorees and their families, who traveled from as far as Africa, not see the exhibit plaques honoring the four men, Kaplan said in a telephone interview.

Now, the Hall of Fame is unavailable again to the public to see tributes to legendary aviation pioneers and performers. The story is the same at national shrines and sites across the country, he said.

“I just don’t understand given that a terrorist attack couldn’t have the same effect on our government that our own elected officials have,” he said. “We come in every day to fulfill our mission and our purpose and we can’t do that.”

The hall of fame is supported through private and corporate donations, he said.

Meanwhile, an estimated 400 to 500 people showed up for a Food Bank of Dayton mobile food pantry outside the gates of Wright-Patterson, not far from the museum, and many were civilian base employees, according to reports. The distribution gave away fresh produce, meat, pasta and canned goods.

Staff member Chris Stewart and WHIO-TV contributed to this story.

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