The Air Force says the historic presidential jet that President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on will not move from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.
The historic Boeing 707 jet, which carried President John F. Kennedy’s body home after his Nov. 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, has been displayed at the museum at Wright-Patterson since 1998. The aircraft is set to be one of the centerpieces of a new $35.4 million museum gallery expansion to open in early 2016.
Wyatt Thomas Johnson, chairman emeritus of the non-profit LBJ Foundation, has said he and other supporters were prepared to raise millions of dollars to build a new pavilion at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin to renovate and showcase the iconic plane.
Johnson has said he was not seeking an adversarial standoff between the foundation and the Air Force and members of Congress, but a win-win for both communities. He has suggested the aircraft could be loaned for a new pavilion at the University of Texas campus in Austin to boost museum attendance.
Johnson did not respond to messages Wednesday. But in a statement, the foundation declined to comment on the Air Force announcement.
“The LBJ Foundation has just received a copy of the letter from the U.S. Air Force and statements from Senator Rob Portman and Congressman Michael R. Turner,” LBJ Foundation spokeswoman Ann Wheeler said in an email. “We are evaluating the information and have no further comment at this time.”
In a Jan. 17 letter to U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, Maj. Gen. James F. Martin assured the two lawmakers the plane, also known as VC-137C or Special Air Mission (SAM) 26000, would be permanently displayed at the Air Force museum. Portman and Turner sent a Jan. 8 letter to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James about their “serious concerns” the museum might lose the jet.
“The Air Force is not considering the transfer of this aircraft to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum or any other entity,” Martin wrote in response. “The Air Force’s decades-long mission as the executive agent for presidential fixed-wing airlift is a great historical narrative and one that we are proud to present to the public. SAM 26000 is a key artifact to tell this important Air Force story.”
In an Austin American-Statesman interview published last week, LBJ Foundation board member Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor, had vowed Portman’s and Turner’s letter to James would not be the final say in the tug of war for the plane.
“That letter was not by any means the last blow landed in this fight,” he told the newspaper, adding Austin “was a superior location” for the plane compared to “a town in Ohio.”
“I think it would be a great thing for Austin and for Texas to see President Johnson’s Air Force One returned to its rightful place adjacent to the LBJ library,” he said.
Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, said Dayton region aviation groups will weigh advocacy actions they may launch to ensure SAM 26000 stays at Wright-Patterson.
“We’re not going to let this plane go without a fight, and we plan on being successful no matter how much money they have in Texas,” he said Wednesday. “History is on our side.”
He said the jet was “exceptionally important” to the Air Force museum, which draws more than 1 million visitors a year from around the world.
“We hope that Texans would take that decision that was made by the secretary (of the Air Force) as a statement of fact in accordance with the laws of the United States government,” he said. “These assets belong to the citizens of the United States of America.”
The history of the jet is bigger than LBJ’s presidency because of its role in the presidencies of both Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, who flew aboard the jet in a groundbreaking trip establishing relations with the People’s Republic of China, Sculimbrene said. The jet served eight presidents from Kennedy to Bill Clinton.
“I think that’s the reason why it has a rightful place at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force,” Sculimbrene said. “That’s the reason you have national museums.”
Under U.S. code, the Air Force may not loan or donate an artifact like the plane “as long as there is a service requirement or need” for it, according to museum spokesman Rob Bardua.”Air Force One, SAM 26000 is not eligible for loan or donation because the aircraft is used to display the history and heritage associated with the Air Force’s Presidential airlift mission and its association with our national history,” he said in an email.
Johnson has noted a retired presidential Boeing jet, known as SAM 27000, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, was key to a boost in attendance at the Simi Valley, Calif. museum.
Attendance averages around 350,000 patrons a year at the Reagan library, a boost from 200,000 to 250,000 annually prior to two events: Reagan’s burial on the museum’s grounds, and the arrival of the former Air Force One jet, said Melissa Giller, a Reagan Library Foundation spokeswoman.
Adam Howard, Turner’s chief of staff, said the congressman was not available for an interview Wednesday afternoon, but Howard said in an email the Air Force decision was “a big win.”
In a statement, Turner said the “Air Force museum in Dayton is a national treasure and our community appreciates the Air Force recognizing that President Johnson’s Air Force One rightly belongs among the historical collection displayed there.”