I can’t complain. I recently got to go aboard three separate planes used by U.S. presidents, including perhaps the most famous “Air Force One,” known by the call letters SAM 26000: the plane President John F. Kennedy flew to Texas in November 1963. After JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Lyndon B. Johnson took the presidential oath of office on the plane before takeoff from Dallas. The swearing-in took place in a crowded “conference room” mid-cabin on the plane, with Johnson flanked by his wife Claudia (“Lady Bird”) and Kennedy’s blood-splattered widow, Jacqueline (“Jackie”).
I’ve long had a keen interest in presidential history, including first ladies, first families, White House history, etc. So when a cousin casually told me about this museum where I could walk through “JFK’s Air Force One,” my ears perked up.
I was in Dayton, Ohio, and had one morning free. I’d have to rush myself through “the world’s largest military aviation museum.” They ain’t kidding. It’s huge. I could spend several days leisurely wandering through its many exhibits spread through four giant hangars and the galleries that connect them. But I only had three hours tops. I arrived just after 9 a.m. In the lobby, I was asked if I needed directions. I said I wanted to see SAM 26000. “You’re here,” a museum volunteer said, pointing to a spot on a map. “And the Presidential Gallery is here — it’s a quarter-mile back there.”
I granted myself short detours to the Korean War Gallery (my dad was an Army man, but that’s the war he fought) and a section of the World War II Gallery that focused on the Holocaust, specifically the liberation of concentration camps by U.S. troops moving across Germany near war’s end. I also got distracted by a mock-up of the space shuttle.
To my surprise, SAM 26000 wasn’t the only presidential plane displayed and open to tours. I got to walk through The Independence, used first by President Harry Truman. Next I walked through The Columbine III, used mostly by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Finally, I made my way up the steps of SAM 26000 and walked into history. The other two were awesome. But this was a plane I’ve seen countless times in photos and videos.The plane’s interior was reconfigured after JFK’s time. But signage inside lets you know when you’re standing roughly where Johnson took the oath of office. And just as you are about to exit, a sign tells you this is where a wall was cut in order to bring Kennedy’s casket onto the plane. I went through three times, trying to grab a few seconds without anyone behind me. It was a remarkable-for-me experience. And I was in and out, a half-mile round-trip, in about two and a half hours.
I could spend a weekend at the museum. Admission is free.The National Museum of the United States Air Force is located just outside Dayton at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. For more about it, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]