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Expansion gives museum visitors chance to see iconic planes

For years, some of the most iconic planes in American history have largely been hidden in an old hangar behind the fence at Wright-Patterson, out of view of most Air Force museum visitors.

Wednesday, the view changes.

A $40.8 million expansion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is set to open and will unveil a fleet of 10 historic presidential aircraft, the legendary X-15 rocket plane that touched space, the last remaining XB-70 Valkyrie experimental bomber, and the C-141 Starlifter dubbed the “Hanoi Taxi” that flew the first U.S. POWs to freedom during the Vietnam war.

The 224,000-square-foot hangar has four galleries: Presidential, Space, Research and Development, and Global Reach. For months, museum workers carefully towed a parade of planes from the old hangar to the new and reassembled a 204-foot-long, 96-ton Titan IV rocket under the roof.

The new hangar houses the largest collection in the world of U.S. presidential and exotic research planes under one roof, spokesman Rob Bardua said.

It’s part of more than 70 aircraft, rockets, missiles and spacecraft jammed into the new building, the fourth hangar at the world’s largest military aviation museum.

President Richard M. Nixon presided at the opening of the museum at the current site in 1971.

Here’s a look at some highlights visitors will see:

PRESIDENTIAL GALLERY: A blue and white Boeing 707 with the tail number SAM 26000, more commonly called Air Force One when one of the eight presidents was aboard, is the centerpiece of the Presidential Gallery.

The presidential jet, designated the VC-137 by the Air Force, flew President John F. Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C., after his Nov. 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas, Texas. In a cramped compartment, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president on the swept-wing jet immediately after Kennedy’s death.

“It’s definitely one of the aircraft in our museum people identify with and have have lots of questions about,” said Christina Douglass, a Presidential Gallery project manager. “… This airplane has that effect on a lot of people, not just the people who were alive during the 1960s and, of course, remember the day that President Kennedy was assassinated.”

The collection spans a Douglas VC-54, known as the Sacred Cow, that flew President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a more modern C-20B Gulfstream Aerospace executive business jet.

SPACE AND RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT GALLERIES: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules and a life-sized Space Shuttle mock-up document U.S. manned exploration of space. Nearby, visitors can walk underneath a towering Titan IV rocket tilted on its side in a giant cradle.

“You can’t see a full-up (Titan IV) anywhere else and you certainly can’t walk under one,” said Doug Lantry, a museum curator.

Close by, the XB-70 bomber dwarfs the needle-shaped X-15 in a row of exotic experimental aircraft that pushed the edge of technology. “The X-15 is a really, really important landmark in aerospace reach history and the Air Force’s reach for space,” he said. “That vehicle was all about speed and altitude … the point of it was to go as high and fast as possible.”

Pilots who flew the hypersonic plane 50 miles above Earth in the 1960s earned astronaut wings “because technically you’re in space,” Lantry said.

The XB-70, with a massive triangle-shaped wing and six powerful engines, is the only one remaining of the two experimental jets flown at three times the speed of sound in the 1960s. The other supersonic bomber crashed on a test range in California.

“The XB-70, one word to sum it up would be exotic,” said Jeff Duford, a museum curator. “Everything about the aircraft was exotic.”

The flying saucer shaped Avro car stands out for aviation and UFO buffs.

“It actually is a flying saucer,” Duford said. “It wasn’t very successful, but it is a disc with two bubble canopies on the cockpits so that’s a really fun artifact.”

GLOBAL REACH: For the first time, visitors will be able to walk inside the Hanoi Taxi, which last served with the Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson. The plane was turned over to the museum a decade ago.

“The Hanoi Taxi is a very important aircraft, but for POWs, whether or not they were actually on the first flight out or not, it still is a symbol for them of the day that they got to come home,” said Jeff Underwood, museum historian.

“People ask us about the aircraft all the time,” he said. “It’s one of the symbols of the Vietnam War that everyone can relate to and understand.”

The aircraft was the only one to retain the same paint scheme displayed in Vietnam in later years, he said.

Learning nodes, places where visitors can do research, will open in the Global Reach, Presidential and Space Galleries.

“They’re each a unique type of learning environment,” said Cindy Henry, a museum aerospace educator. “Students will be working in cooperative groups to do problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.”

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