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Ohio lawmakers concerned Texas trying to take classic Air Force One from museum

The National Museum of the Air Force is home to the plane that carried President Kennedy’s body back from Dallas after the assassination in 1963. President Johnson was sworn in on board the plane.

Two Ohio lawmakers are concerned the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library & Museum in Texas wants to take one of the National Museum of the Air Force’s most famous artifacts.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have sent a letter to the Air Force’s top civilian leader decrying reports the LBJ Library in Austin wants to display the presidential aircraft Johnson was sworn in on after President John F. Kennedy’s death in 1963.

In the Jan. 8 letter released Friday, Portman and Turner wrote to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James the two lawmakers had “serious concerns” about the possible removal of the historic aircraft, officially designated VC-137C, or SAM 26000, from the museum’s presidential aircraft collection.

“We wanted to make sure we nipped this in the bud fast,” Turner said in an interview, adding some want to “poach” the historic collection that attracts more than a million visitors every year. “We want to make sure that it does not remain vulnerable.”

The Boeing-built jet transported President Kennedy to Dallas, Texas on the day of his assassination Nov. 22, 1963 and within hours was the place where Johnson was sworn in as president. Later that day, the plane carried Johnson and Kennedy’s remains back to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. After serving eight presidents over three decades, the plane made its final landing at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in May 1998.

Wyatt Thomas Johnson, chairman emeritus of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, which supports the LBJ library, said late Friday he had been in discussions with the Air Force museum about bringing the storied jet to a future building adjacent to the library on the University of Texas campus. He said the hope is the jet would bring an attendance boost much as a former Air Force One plane did for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Johnson, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., said the university has given its blessing to the idea and he was confident he could secure the millions of dollars necessary for the project.

“We’ve thought about this, I hope, in a very diplomatic, non-adversarial way,” said Johnson, a former CNN president, past Los Angeles Times publisher and former assistant to President Johnson. “… I would love to find a way where this worked out in everybody’s best interest.”

Johnson said he met with Air Force museum director John “Jack” Hudson who declined the request to send the historic jet to Texas.

Air Force museum spokesman Rob Bardua said in an email Hudson was contacted last spring by an individual with LBJ Foundation “connections” who requested loaning the historic aircraft to the LBJ museum, and Hudson said no.

“The museum is not considering a donation or loan of SAM 26000 to the LBJ Library & Museum or to any other entity,” Bardua said in the email. “The Air Force’s decades-long mission of being the executive agent for presidential fixed wing airlift is a great historical narrative and one that the museum is both proud to capture and present to the public.”

Turner and Portman noted in their letter the Air Force museum is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world “and is well deserving of such an iconic piece of aviation history.”

They wrote the LBJ library “lacks the necessary facilities to house an aircraft the size of Air Force One” and has“significantly fewer visitors” to see the plane with the presidential seal if the jet were moved to Texas. “Moving this aircraft from the (Air Force museum) is a mistake that would deprive the public of access to such an important piece of American history,” they wrote.

The jet is on display in the Presidential Gallery in a Wright-Patterson hangar on a restricted, limited-access portion of the base. The gallery, which most visitors get to via a bus trip from the main complex, has in recent years had about 90,000 visitors annually. Museum officials plan to relocate the collection of presidential planes to the museum’s main public complex in a $35.4 million expansion set to open in late 2015.

Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs in Washington, D.C., said it’s not the first time an outside party has shown interest in acquiring part of the museum’s collection.

“We support a logical and useful Air Force policy to ensure the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force retains the best examples of the most historic aircraft,” he said.

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