Air Force Museum unveils plans for major expansion

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Air Force Museum unveils plans for major expansion

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will relocate a one-of-a-kind experimental aircraft collection to a new $46 million gallery in 2015, giving hundreds of thousands of visitors a chance to see both historic and futuristic air and space planes now closed off in a hangar from museum visitors.

The research and development aircraft will be added inside a fourth hangar already in the works to house the Presidential, Global Reach and Space Galleries, which will showcase former Air Force One planes, cargo jets and a Space Shuttle crew compartment trainer, according to museum officials.

The presidential collection includes the plane that brought President John F. Kennedy’s body back to Washington after his assassination in Dallas in 1963. President Lyndon Johnson was also sworn in on that aircraft. The collection also includes planes used by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Nixon, Reagan and others.

A giant, delta-winged Mach-3 bomber called the XB-70 and the record-setting, hypersonic X-15 manned rocket plane which skirted the edge of space will land in the new home attached to the main museum complex. More than two dozen other experimental aircraft, such as the flying saucer shaped Avrocar, will also move to the gallery.

“Each one of these artifacts, those exhibits, are engineering marvels,” said Richard V. Reynolds, chairman of the Air Force Museum Foundation, Inc. Board of Managers and a retired Air Force lieutenant general.

Museum officials temporarily shut down public tours of the off-site Presidential and Research and Development hangar May 1 because of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, upsetting some visitors. Before the closure, those who wanted to tour the hangar had to show identification at the museum, then board a shuttle bus and travel through the gates of Wright-Patterson to Area B.

Halting the shuttle and curbing utility costs will save about $120,000 a year, said John “Jack” Hudson, museum director and a retired Air Force lieutenant general.

“When sequestration was implemented, we had to make some tough decisions,” he said. “That was it.”

The old hangar will be used to store aircraft once the planes are moved. The off-site hangar has attracted a fraction, or about 90,000 people, of the more than 1.2 million people who travel to the museum each year.

To make room in the new gallery, the museum has scuttled plans to roll in a C-5 Galaxy and a KC-135 Stratotanker, Hudson said.

Cargo planes in the museum’s outdoor air park, such as the C-141 Starlifter known as the “Hanoi Taxi” that brought the first American POWs home from Vietnam, will be brought inside the expansion to protect the planes from the weather, Hudson said.

The additional planes will mean more opportunities to teach science, technology, math and engineering lessons, Hudson said.

Tough fundraising, and long-term planning and environmental studies have pushed back the initial opening date of the new gallery by at least a year. Construction would begin in the summer of 2014 and finish about a year later.

“It does take time to do that and as plans were solidified and we got more realism in the timeline, 2015 just became the right time frame to shoot for for building completion,” Hudson said.

Thus far, the museum’s foundation has raised more than $38 million for the privately funded expansion through gift, ticket and food sales at the museum, foundation membership, and individual and corporate donations, Reynolds said.

“We started back just a couple of months after the economic crisis of 2008,” Reynolds said. “We’ve been at it for about five years now and we’ve actually done very, very well. It’s a tough environment, make no mistake about it. All the economic pressures that are affecting companies large and small and individuals come to bear when we go engage them for potential support of this project.”

The Air Force pays the costs to operate the museum. This season, however, because of sequestration that led to $374,000 in cuts, the foundation will contribute $42,000 to pay utility expenses one day a week through the summer.

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