$35.4M expansion of Air Force museum plans spring 2016 opening

“It’s a big, open, cavernous building,” said Brian Moran, a project executive with Turner Construction Co., which broke ground on the project a year ago. A cold winter and heavy spring rains delayed the project about three weeks, but workers plan to finish the building by mid-September, he said.

The years-long venture is a big gambit with hopes the fourth hangar at the main complex will draw more visitors to the world’s largest military aviation museum, boosting attendance beyond the more than 1 million yearly attendees, according to John “Jack” Hudson, museum executive director.

By October, exotic experimental jets, and historic presidential planes, rockets, missiles and spacecraft are expected to begin to roll into the 224,000-square-foot building set to open in spring 2016.

$46 million goal

The Air Force Museum Foundation is paying for the privately financed building, raising more than $40 million of a $46 million goal. The extra money, raised through donations and museum gift shop, cafe, and theater sales, covers extra costs from lighting to amphitheater-like learning nodes, officials have said.

Less than 100,000 people a year typically see historic planes such as the giant, delta-winged XB-70 Valkyrie experimental bomber and the Boeing 707 Air Force One jet that carried President John F. Kennedy’s body back to Washington after his assassination in Dallas in 1963. Today, the jets are part of the Research and Development and Presidential galleries in a hangar in a restricted-access area of Wright-Patterson.

The new building will change all that, Hudson said, which also will be home to cargo planes and space artifacts for the Global Reach and Space galleries.

“There’s tremendous new capabilities we gain with the new building,” said Hudson, a retired Air Force lieutenant general. “That’s what it really gives us.”

Between now and then, about 100 workers roam the concrete floor filled with mobile cranes and forklifts finishing final details.

All that work has produced a bevy of statistics:

* The hangar covers five acres.

* Inside, it’s 300 feet wide, 785-feet-long and the ceiling at its highest point rises 86 feet above the floor, according t0 Tim Walsh, a Turner Construction engineer and quality control manager.

* Crews have poured 17,500 cubic yards of concrete; erected 1,400 tons of steel; used 7,000 gallons of paint; and installed 38.5 miles of 16-inch panels and 35 miles of wire. The curved roof covers 270,000 square feet alone, Moran said. The floor varies in thickness, from five inches of concrete to as much as a foot, depending on what aircraft will be parked where.

Bigger doors, bigger planes

The two flat sides of the building have 42-feet tall hangar doors. Each is made up of six, 5,000 pound panels 20-feet wide and designed to withstand Ohio’s windy days, Moran said.

“These doors are a lot bigger than the doors of the other hangars because of the aircraft they’re bringing in,” Moran said.

The biggest artifact will be assembling a 204-foot long, 190,000-pound Titan IVB rocket, said Doug Lantry, a museum curator. Pieces of the rocket will be pulled out of storage and displayed at the museum for the first time.

“It’s very large, very heavy, it will be up in the air (on a 10-foot-high stand) and it comes in several pieces,” he said. “So all of that is a delicate and precise dance about when and how to move and put together.”

The space shuttle mock-up exhibit will take flight to the new gallery, also.

Another challenge: Suspending the X-13 Vertijet, a 5,300-pound, delta-shaped plane, from the ceiling. A reinforced suspension beam was built for the job.

Curators also have carefully plotted the route of the “very heavy” XB-70, weighing in at more than 230,000 pounds without fuel or armaments, to roll to its new destination, said Jeff Duford, a curator in the Research and Development Gallery.

Moving the galaxy of dozens of experimental aircraft will be easier because the museum kept the collection in one spot, Duford said.

“If those aircraft had been spread around through the museum at this moment now we’d be tearing up exhibits and pulling them out of galleries,” he added. “It’s one of the finest R&D collections not just in this country but in the entire world and it will all be under the same roof and the same gallery.”

Three cargo planes — a C-141, C-130 and a C-82 — now displayed outside will be inside the new building, said Scott Bradley, a Global Reach Gallery curator. Pulling the planes inside will better preserve the aircraft. “Every year our restoration staff actually spends a lot of money and a lot of time making sure aircraft” stay protected against weather, he said.

Museum curators have taken preservation measures, such as reinforcing flooring, on historic presidential planes to handle as much as 10 times as many people who may walk through the interior of some of the aircraft. such as JFK’s Air Force One, said Christina Douglass, a Presidential Gallery project manager. “It’s something we’re very aware of and something we’re ready for,” she said.

Shuttle bus tours from the main complex to the restricted-access hangar home to nine presidential planes and 41 experimental planes will end by Oct. 1 to give curators time to prepare for the move, Hudson said.

If the museum lands a presidential Boeing 747 in the decade ahead, the Jumbo Jet would be displayed indoors, Douglass said. The Boeing 747’s tail would have to be temporarily removed to squeeze through the hangar doors, Moran said.

Staff writer Kate Patrick contributed to this story.

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