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Air Force One Is King of the Road

Jet that squired seven presidents around the world arrives -- by ground -- at the Reagan library near Simi Valley.

June 22, 2003|Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writer

Except for one flat tire and a near miss with a low overpass, former President Ronald Reagan's Air Force One arrived at daybreak in Simi Valley on Saturday without a hitch.

On what will likely be its last trip, the decommissioned aircraft was trucked more than 100 miles from San Bernardino to the former president's hilltop library in southeast Ventura County, where it will become part of a new exhibit.

A team of four dozen machinists, police officers and historians joined the early morning caravan, startling freeway motorists along the way awed by the words United States of America emblazoned on the side of the 153-foot-long Boeing 707.

"This was truly a lot of fun but also [fostered] an enormous sense of pride," said John Bouza, a Boeing official who accompanied the aircraft's 80,000-pound fuselage and disconnected wings from San Bernardino International Airport to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Air Force One -- A story in some editions of Sunday's California section incorrectly reported that the Air Force One jet transported to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley on Saturday is only the second to go on public display. In addition to the plane in Simi Valley, Air Force One jet aircraft are on display in Seattle and Dayton, Ohio. Propeller-powered presidential aircraft are on display in Tucson, Ariz., and Dayton.

Air Force One, assigned the tail number 27000, will be the centerpiece of a $20-million expansion at the library, which will include a pavilion to showcase the plane, President Reagan's Marine 1 helicopter and a military fighter jet. There will also be a separate two-level structure housing a presidential learning center, auditorium and gallery.

The expansion will more than double the size of what is already the largest presidential library in the country. The so-called "flying White House" exhibit is set to open next May.

During a private picnic Saturday afternoon on a terrace overlooking the plane, museum officials and representatives from Boeing and other companies dined on barbecue, shrimp and champagne and reflected on the massive undertaking.

"This really helps us put an exclamation point on the Ronald Reagan library," said Mark Burson, president of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. "It is a symbol of the incredibly rich history surrounding a great leader."

Reagan logged more miles on Air Force One -- 631,640 -- than any of the six other presidents who flew on it. Those included Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and both George Bushes. Burson noted that Reagan made several key trips on the plane, including historic conferences with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and history-changing summits in Geneva in 1985, Reykjavik in 1986 and Moscow in 1988.

Air Force One was an official presidential aircraft for 28 years before it was retired in 2001. Its last flight was on Sept. 8, 2001, when several dignitaries were flown from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert to the San Bernardino airport, where it was greeted by Nancy Reagan, then stored and disassembled, said library spokeswoman Melissa Giller.

The plane is permanently on loan from the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, the site of the only other public display of an Air Force One, used by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

To reach Simi Valley, the convoy set out from San Bernardino about midnight Friday and traveled along interstates 10, 15 and 210 before reaching the Ronald Reagan Freeway in Simi Valley at daybreak Saturday. Speeds ranged between 10 and 40 mph, officials said.

To transport the plane known as "Spirit of '76," both 68-foot wings were removed and loaded on a flatbed truck. The plane's landing gear was then removed and replaced with a hydraulic system mounted on 16 wheels that could raise and lower the plane when necessary.

The lift kit came in handy near Madera Road in Simi Valley early Saturday, Bouza said, when a height-sensing device on a "lead vehicle" came upon an overpass that could not be cleared by the fuselage. The driver towing the fuselage was alerted and lowered the plane several inches before reaching the overpass.

Once the caravan reached Presidential Drive leading to the museum, the semi towing the plane carefully maneuvered the curvy road. The task was made easier because all of the towering light standards lining the drive, as well as a large gate and other obstructions, had been temporarily removed to clear the way.

As for the flat tire, which occurred near Glendora, officials said the team of mechanics in the convoy functioned liked a race-car pit crew.

"I think they had that thing changed in about eight minutes," Bouza said, laughing. "It was amazing. The whole operation was just amazing."

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Times staff writer Rodney Bosch contributed to this report.

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