The flying presidential fleet of Boeing 747 jets will stay airborne for years, but the competition to land one of the coveted Air Force One planes for a future exhibit may have had its first salvo in a battle that will bring tourists and dollars to wherever the planes permanently park.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the keeper of the nation’s historic collection of presidential planes, has its sights on landing one of the two planes in service when a new jet replaces the old within the decade.
The Air Force announced late last month a new, American-made four-engine plane — the Boeing 747-8 — will replace the current Air Force One fleet, known as the VC-25 in the Air Force, by 2023.
John “Jack” Hudson, Air Force museum director, said getting one of the coveted blue and white jets was “an exhibit requirement” to keep the continuity of the nine presidential planes in the collection today which trace their lineage back to the first that carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the nation during the Great Depression and World War II.
“We know that the presidential collection is a big draw for our national museum,” Hudson said.
But already, interest has soared elsewhere. A Chicago newspaper columnist has pushed to bring one of the two presidential 747s flying today to the Windy City, considered the home base of President Barack Obama.
“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.”
As recently as last year, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas tried repeatedly, and failed, to pull one of the Air Force museum’s most prized planes out of the collection – the so-called JFK Air Force One, often called by its tailcode, SAM 26000 – for permanent display in Texas. Johnson was sworn in as president on the Boeing 707 after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. The blue and white jet with the presidential seal arrived at the Air Force museum in 1998.
“… We know that when SAM 26000 came here there was an increase in attendance,” Hudson said. “We know assuming that a VC-25 comes here there will be another big boost in attendance.”
But officials don’t know how much that might reach.
Presidential planes were one of the attractions to Gary Grossman, 57, of Tucson, Ariz., as he toured SAM 26000 recently. “There’s something cool about seeing planes presidents are in,” he said.
Former Air Force One jets, the moniker for the plane when the commander-in-chief is aboard, have power to attract the masses. At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., after the arrival of a Boeing 707 known as SAM 27000 and the burial of the former president on the grounds, attendance rose to about 350,000 people a year, or a jump of more than 100,000 patrons, a library spokeswoman said last year.
If Chicago tries to land a retired Air Force One, Rosenthal wrote, Boeing might want to lend a hand. The aerospace giant calls Chicago its corporate home, and the company “not only should put in a good word, it might even want to offer to restore and reassemble the aircraft for display on-site as it did for the Reagan library, a project it called Operation Homeward Bound,” he wrote.
The decision on where the planes will go is made by the secretary of the Air Force. Hudson rated the chance to land one of the jumbo jets in Dayton as “excellent.”
“We’re an Air Force unit. We are the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force,” said Jeff Underwood, museum historian. “Obviously, I cannot speak for the secretary of the Air Force, but I would fully expect that we will get first crack at the aircraft when it comes out.”
The Air Force museum may not have a red-carpeted runway, but it will soon have plenty of space for a 747-sized Air Force One, officials said.
A new $35.4 million, 224,000-square-foot hangar gallery will open in early 2016, and as caretakers of the rest of the presidential collection, the museum staff has the experience to take on the jumbo jet, Hudson said.
Museum leaders say the new hangar will allow hundreds of thousands more visitors to see the presidential planes. More than a million people a year visit the museum.
Today, less than 10 percent of visitors on average, or roughly 90,000 people, see the Air Force One collection each year. The planes stand in a hangar in a restricted area of Wright-Patterson. Most of those who see the planes that once carried the commander-in-chief sign up for a tour and travel by bus from the main museum complex.
A military version of the DC-6 airliner, dubbed the Independence, and that served President Harry Truman, was the first plane in the collection to arrive in 1965.
‘We got first choice’
Underwood said the museum has not picked one of the two 747s flying today, but it did ask for SAM 26000, also known as an Air Force VC-137.
The other presidential Boeing 707, dubbed SAM 27000, was loaned to the Reagan library.
“We got first choice, and that was the first one that came out which was perfect for us,” Underwood said, standing next to Kennedy’s Air Force One, a plane that carried eight presidents. “The one at the Reagan library is really important. But the pedigree on this aircraft, the history involved with this aircraft, is really just beyond imagination.”
Museums across the country might one day have a better line on one of the president’s so-called “Doomsday” planes if ever offered for exhibit. The E-4B, a military version of the Boeing 747-200B, has been flying since 1974 as a presidential airborne command post in event of an attack on the United States. The Air Force has four, but has not announced a retirement date for the jets.
The Air Force museum doesn’t have its sights set on the “Doomsday” plane, Hudson said.
“That’s a valuable asset in our nation’s history, but given the size of that airplane, it’s so big that really you want to be very careful about how many of those things you acquire,” he said.
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