Museum aims to add latest Air Force One to its presidential fleet

When two Air Force One Boeing 747s flying today leave the presidential fleet, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman wants one of the jumbo jets to land permanently at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Portman, R-Ohio, said he has added an amendment to next year’s defense bill that would mandate the Air Force place one of the jets in the collection of presidential planes at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

Portman wants to avoid a repeat of a tug-of-war like one two years ago that pitted the Ohio and Texas congressional delegations in a tussle over where the famed presidential jet that transported President John F. Kennedy, known as “JFK’s Air Force One,” should be displayed. The Boeing 707 has called the museum home since 1998. The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, tried repeatedly, but failed, to bring the jet to Texas. Johnson was sworn in as president aboard the aircraft after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

“I did this because we had a little experience you may remember … where another community tried to take … our Air Force jet from the Air Force museum and we put up quite a fight and we were able at the end to prevail,” Portman said Thursday in a conference call announcing the legislation. “But there’s competition for these, and again, we want to be sure it’s the national Air Force museum” that has one.

Portman’s amendment calls on the Air Force to detail by April 1, 2016, its plans for the retirement of the presidential 747s in service and “the plan to move one or both aircraft to a museum owned by the Department of the Air Force. …”

In a statement Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said he “initiated provisions directing the Air Force to house the current fleet of Air Force One aircraft at Wright-Patt …”

Chicago’s unofficial pitch

Last year, a Chicago newspaper columnist, noting the Windy City as the home base of President Barack Obama, urged the lakefront city to plan now to land one of the two current jets, known in the Air Force as VC-25s, after they are taken out of presidential service in 2023.

“This is going to take political and corporate muscle so we best start limbering up now,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal. “It’s a sure bet we won’t be the only ones looking to roll out the red-carpeted runway.”

The Air Force has a policy to send prior Air Force One aircraft to the museum’s control, but there’s been “interference” in the past with that practice, causing concern, said Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs. The Secretary of the Air Force has the final decision on the location of presidential jets.

“There is a pattern of interference to secure aircraft which are tagged for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in contradiction to the Air Force policy,” he said.

Air Force museum director John “Jack” Hudson could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in a February interview, he said getting one of the coveted jets was “an exhibit requirement” for the continuity of the nine presidential planes on display at the museum. The oldest traces its lineage to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Douglas VC-54C, dubbed the “Sacred Cow.”

In a statement Thursday, the museum said it appreciated congressional support. The collection, it noted, “was unique to the museum, and allows a national and international audience to see and experience an unbroken continuum of over seven decades of Air Force and national history.”

Museum’s history

Most visitors caught a glimpse of that history by boarding a shuttle bus at the main complex to take a ride to a restricted-access hangar at Wright-Patterson. Those shuttle runs recently stopped when Wright-Patterson tightened security measures.

Hundreds of thousands more visitors will see the presidential planes, museum curators have said, when they are rolled into a new $35.4 million gallery under construction and set to open early next year. The expansion will add a fourth hangar and 224,000 square feet of space to the museum more than a million visitors travel to every year.

The presidential aircraft fleet is “a huge draw for us,” Portman said. “It’s good for tourism in the area. And by the way, it’s an Air Force plane so it makes sense that the Air Force museum has dibs on it. They don’t call it Air Force One for nothing.”

Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance in Dayton, spoke out against the LBJ Library’s attempt to take SAM 26000, the jet the carried both Kennedy and Johnson as president. He welcomed the Air Force decision to keep the jet in Dayton and Portman’s plan to prevent another tug of war for a new presidential plane.

“It’s delightful to hear this,” he said. “Those assets are really critical assets to the Air Force museum because of the story they tell.”

The Air Force has announced it will replace the two jets with the Boeing 747-800, a newer version of the jetliner.

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