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Air Force Museum cuts tours due to sequestration

Tours of historic presidential and experimental aircraft will end May 1 because of budget cuts at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, officials said Tuesday.

The cuts will sideline bus tours during the peak tourist season to the Presidential and Research and Development Galleries and a restoration hangar housing one-of-a-kind planes separated from the main museum.

The presidential hangar includes several planes used as Air Force One including the one that carried President John F. Kennedy’s body after he was assassinated in Dallas nearly 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963. President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on board that aircraft. Planes used by presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower are also in the gallery.

Ending the tours will save $120,000 in transportation and utility costs, part of $374,000 the museum must cut because of automatic federal budget cuts dubbed sequestration, officials said.

Museum director Jack Hudson said the tour cancellations will preserve seven-day-a-week operations at the main complex which attracts about 1.2 million visitors a year, more than half of whom visit during the summer. Of those, more than 90,000 people toured the galleries and hangars last year where the tours will end.

The museum’s annual budget is more than $14 million and is the largest free admission attraction in Ohio.

“These things ripple down to just about every organization within the Department of Defense, and we’re no different,” said Hudson, a retired Air Force lieutenant general. “These were hard decisions. Nothing was easy.”

The Air Force Museum Foundation Inc. will contribute about $42,000 to cover the cost of utilities one day a week at the main complex between May and September, officials said.

“The fact remains that the majority of the museum, still such a vast portion of it, remains open and I think that’s what’s critical,” said Jacquelyn Powell, president and CEO of the Dayton/Montgomery County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Starting April 26, the museum will suspend once-a-week “behind the scene tours” of a restoration hangar where skilled craft workers bend sheet metal and rebuild cockpits in historic aircraft such as the B-17 Memphis Belle. The Wright-Patterson museum, which has a more than a $40 million a year economic impact, has canceled summer aerospace youth camps, suspended hiring seasonal workers, canceled a guest lecture series and has cut travel, maintenance expenses and supply purchases. The museum’s 95 civilian employees face expected 14-day furloughs starting in June.

Museum officials said tours may relaunch Oct. 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, but that’s not a certainty. Many of the more than 500 museum volunteers lead gallery tours.

The decision to scuttle the tours, at least until Sept. 30, didn’t please visitors to the presidential gallery Tuesday.

“I think it’s nonsense,” said Bob Suchyta, 65, a Dearborn, Mich., doctor who brought his three sons. “It’s like canceling tours to the White House. … I think this is our history and it should not be hijacked because of a 2 percent (federal) budget cut.”

The federal budget faces about $85 billion in across-the-board reductions from last month to the end of September because of the sequester.

Nell Devault, 65, drove from Clarksville, Tenn., with friend T.L Brewster, 85, to see the museum where Devault pointed out the historic former Air Force One jet used by Kennedy.

She was against stopping the tours. “I think it would be a shame if they did, really and truly, because it should be open to the public,” she said.

Matt Meininger, 49, of Centerville, said the suspension of the chance to see the planes was “very disappointing.”

“It’s the crown jewel of Dayton and a very large part of our country’s history,” he said, standing between two giant presidential aircraft with his daughter. “The whole sequence of events is sad.”

That’s not the only budget gap the museum has faced. The Air Force Museum Foundation, Inc., has faced economic headwinds to privately fund the construction of a new, fourth hangar to house presidential and cargo aircraft and spacecraft, said Richard V. Reynolds, chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Managers. Fund raising has captured about $38.8 million of the projected $45.2 million price tag. Construction is planned next year and the new addition would open in 2015.

“We’ll fund raise ever harder in a very tough environment to keep building our bank accounts and so that we can get that fourth building built,” he said.

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