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Air Force’s top leaders mark opening of new museum hangar

Thousands of people streamed Wednesday into the $40.8 million expansion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to see the most famous aircraft in the world as officials contemplated a future wish list to add more.

“It’s a huge day for us and years in the making,” said museum director John “Jack” Hudson.

In perhaps the biggest future prize, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told this newspaper she advocates adding one of two current presidential Boeing 747s, otherwise known as Air Force One when the president is aboard, to the museum’s collection of 10 presidential aircraft.

“The odds are very, very strong that the next Air Force One, when it retires, which will be some years in the future, will come to Dayton,” she said.

That decision will be made by the Secretary of the Air Force in office when the presidential aircraft are retired in the next decade, she said.

While James said she would no longer be secretary at decision time, “my voice will live on and I certainly will take the opportunity to advocate and point out to my successor and perhaps to the successors thereafter, the important location of (this) museum.”

James and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s top general, christened the new hangar in an invitation-only ceremony Tuesday, a day ahead of its public debut to hundreds waiting in line before the doors opened Wednesday.

Standing on a stage in front of the SAM 26000 presidential aircraft that flew as Air Force One for eight presidents, Welsh also Tuesday unveiled four galleries named after Air Force and aviation pioneers in the Space, Global Reach, Presidential, and Research and Development galleries.

“This is a sacred place,” the four-star general said. “This is our museum.”

Along with a jumbo jet-sized Air Force One, the museum has targeted acquiring a KC-135 aerial refueling tanker, a C-5 Galaxy transport, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a full-scale structural test model of the B-21, envisioned as the Air Force’s next generation bomber, Hudson said.

First look inside

The museum counted 5,029 visitors Wednesday, or more than double the 2,400 patrons on a typical Wednesday in June.

Both 15-year-old Andre Sonntag of Beavercreek and 13-year-old Katherine Caillouet of West Milton held giant scissors to cut the grand opening ribbon before a waiting crowd poured in.

Wearing a scouting uniform, Andre Sonntag showed up more than an hour before the doors opened to see his three favorite experimental aircraft: the YF-23 Black Widow, and the YF-12A, forerunner of the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, and the massive XB-70 Valkyrie bomber. “They were going to be great things and they’re just kind of standing as monuments now,” the teen-ager said.

Katherine, who came with her father Courtney, mother Rebekah and sister 9-year-old Elizabeth Caillouet, had no trouble picking a favorite. “I like all the planes pretty much equally,” she said.

Dozens of members of the SAM Fox Association, an alumni network of Air Force crew members who served the presidential fleet, stood for photos in front of the same aircraft they once flew aboard.

Ed Yeilding, 67, of Florence, Ala., spotted the second of two planes he had flown now displayed in museums. At the Air Force museum, it’s a Gulfstream Aerospace C-20B in the Presidential Gallery. It’s the same plane he flew political leaders like Al Gore, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and former first ladies Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton, on missions around the world.

The retired lieutenant colonel piloted a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on a record-setting, coast-to-coast jaunt across the United States. On its final flight, the black jet clocked in a time of 64 minutes and 20 second between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., at a cruising speed of 2,124 mph and around 80,000 feet in altitude.

“You see the curvature of the Earth, bright band of blue on the horizon, darkness overhead because we’re flying above 97 percent of the air molecules,” he said. “You felt like you’re cruising at the edge of space.”

Yeilding and reconnaissance systems officer J.T. Vida delivered the SR-71 to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on March 6, 1990. The twin-engined jet is displayed in the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C.

“Anything that flies, I like it,” Yeilding said.

Pilots and Pioneers

Each of the four galleries has a namesake: The William E. Boeing Presidential Gallery; the Allan and Malcolm Lockheed and Glenn Martin Space Gallery; the Maj. Gen. Albert Boyd and Maj. Gen. Fred Ascani Research and Development Gallery; and the Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Global Reach Gallery.

Susie Boeing, 65, flew in from San Francisco with family members to see the gallery that bears the name of her grandfather, the founder of the aerospace giant a century ago.

“He certainly knew there were new frontiers and everything was wide open,” she said.

Clare Ascani, 63, the daughter of Research and Development Gallery namesake Fred Ascani, traveled from Pittsburgh with more than two dozen family members.

Seeing the gallery, she said, “I know that he would think that it’s just totally amazing.”

Allan Lockheed, 72, son of the elder Allan Lockheed who was co-founder of the aerospace maker that bears the family’s name, said his father’s legacy continues in the company today.

“His intellect, his vision was always on the horizon,” said Lockheed, of Denver, Colo.

Most of the aircraft brought to the privately financed new building rolled in out of an old hangar behind the fence at Wright-Patterson. That forced most visitors to sign up for a bus ride to see some of the most iconic planes in American history, such as SAM 26000, best known as John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One, and the X-15 hypersonic experimental rocket plane.

The museum typically attracts about a million visitors a year, but roughly 70,000 annually toured the old hangar because of the restricted access to the base, Hudson said.

Advocates hope the new hangar will mean a surge in tourism that will have spillover economic benefits for the Miami Valley.

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