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Reagan Library Ready to Break Ground on Air Force One Exhibit

History: The $20-million expansion will display the Boeing 707 used by five presidents. Visitors will be able to walk through the aircraft.

April 03, 2002|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since acquiring the Air Force One used by the former president, officials at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley have been preparing for a $20-million expansion to showcase the retired aircraft.

The new Air Force One pavilion and a separate auditorium and gallery will more than double the size of what is already the largest presidential library in the country. Groundbreaking is scheduled for next month, with the "flying White House" exhibit set to open in May 2004.

The Boeing 707 aircraft--used by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush--is on permanent loan to the library from the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The jet was flown in September to San Bernardino International Airport, where it remains in storage.

The only other Air Force One on public display is the Boeing 707 used by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It is on permanent exhibit at the Ohio museum.

"That's why we think it is so significant for Ventura County," said Mark Burson, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. "We are within one hour's drive time to 10 million people.... It will really help Ventura County become a destination."

The 112,000-square-foot expansion will be built at the north end of the hilltop library, with the historic plane facing a glass wall with a postcard view of the rolling Simi hills.

"It will look like she's flying right out the window," said library director R. Duke Blackwood.

An elevated walkway will wrap around the aircraft, leading visitors to the entrance of the cockpit. As they walk along, there will be displays recounting Reagan's historic conferences with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The focus will be on the three summits Reagan traveled to aboard Air Force One, including Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in 1986 and Moscow in 1988.

"We want to tell the history of the plane, but also in context with Reagan's presidency," Blackwood said.

As they walk through the aircraft, visitors will take an audio tour that re-creates the sounds of an Air Force One flight. "We want to immerse the visitor," Blackwood said. "You can hear the ambient sounds. The cockpit voices. The shuffling of papers. The conversations."

On the pavilion floor next to the plane will be a bulletproof limousine used by Reagan, police motorcycles, a chase car and several mannequins resembling Secret Service agents.

"I'm hoping it will have a kind of kinetic effect," architect Daniel Clinger said of his vision for the display. "It will look like it's ready to move or moving."

Library officials also hope to acquire a Marine Corps One helicopter and an F-14 escort jet to complete the exhibit.

At the entrance to the pavilion will be a glass-enclosed colonnade and exhibit hall that will include a history of the Air Force One fleet. A timeline will begin with President Roosevelt's 1945 flight aboard the C-54 "Sacred Cow" and continue through to George W. Bush's current Air Force One, a more spacious and luxurious Boeing 747.

In addition to the aircraft pavilion, there will be a separate two-level structure that will house a presidential learning center consisting of an auditorium and gallery space. The atrium-like structure will be built with $8 million in federal money, while the $12-million aircraft pavilion will be paid for with private donations.

"It could be the most posh airplane hangar ever," Clinger joked.

The Air Force One exhibit is expected to attract more patrons to the 10-year-old Reagan library, which now includes a museum chronicling the former president's life and 55 million presidential papers administered by the U.S. National Archives and Records, officials said. The library had more than 200,000 visitors last year.

The Air Force donated the retired Air Force One to the library in August, which museum officials consider a major coup because of the plane's history. It is the plane Nixon flew back to California in after resigning in disgrace. Ford tumbled down its steps on a visit to Salzburg, Austria. And Reagan flew to a divided Berlin to demand that Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

"I think people all over the country will be fascinated by it," said Chester A. Newland, a distinguished professor of public administration at USC. But because all presidential libraries "are very much a glorification of the president," the visitor should proceed through them with an objective eye, said Newland, who served as the first director of the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Austin, Texas.

"There are times when I think the presidential trappings are too extravagant," he said, "but I would leave that up to people to decide."

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To take a virtual tour of the planned Air Force One exhibit, visit The Times Web site at latimes.com/airforce1.

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