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One Last Flight to Point Mugu

As president, Reagan often landed at the Ventura County base. In death, it still holds special significance.

June 11, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

It is only fitting that Ronald Reagan's final flight home will touch down at the naval base at Point Mugu, the waterfront airfield that served as his principal point of entry to the West Coast.

No president flew into Point Mugu more often than Reagan, whose blue-and-white Air Force One, dubbed the Spirit of 76, crested the Conejo Grade countless times during his eight years in office, en route to Naval Base Ventura County.

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) remembers well the times he was asked by Reagan to join him on the trip back to California, an invitation the congressman never declined.

"I was never late; I would have been glad to carry his bags," said Gallegly, who counts among his favorite possessions a photo of him and Reagan aboard Air Force One, the pair looking out the window at the Simi Valley site that would become Reagan's presidential library.

"I think it's very fitting that he is returning there," Gallegly said. "I don't think Ronald Reagan would have wanted it any other way."

Reagan may have been Point Mugu's most frequent presidential visitor, but he was not its first.

The base archives are replete with photos of presidential visits from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

There are rumors that Harry S. Truman paid a visit in the 1940s, around the time he officially dedicated the air base as a missile test center.

But base archivist John E. Hart said there was no hard evidence of such a visit.

Instead, Kennedy is listed as the base's first presidential visitor, addressing a crowd of 60,000 people who flooded the tarmac on a gloomy June day, less than six months before his assassination in 1963.

"I go back to Washington with the feeling of renewed pride in being an American and renewed confidence in being a citizen of the greatest republic on earth," Kennedy told the crowd during the brief stopover.

President Nixon was next to visit, in March 1969, and spoke to troops who had served multiple tours in Vietnam.

"As we express our appreciation for what you've done in Vietnam, we want to pledge to you ... that we on our part will assume our responsibility to do everything we can to bring the war in Vietnam to an honorable conclusion," Nixon said.

George H.W. Bush landed at Point Mugu when he came to Ventura County in 1991 for the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

And following in Reagan's footsteps, Bill Clinton made Point Mugu his presidential landing pad when he vacationed at a beachside retreat up the coast from Ventura.

"I've seen them all," Hart said. "They never announce these things. You just see a big buzz when it's happening."

The retired Boeing 707 that Reagan flew to Point Mugu will be the centerpiece of a $20-million expansion underway at the presidential library that will include a special pavilion to showcase the aircraft.

The so-called "flying White House" exhibit is set to open next year.

Hart said Reagan was the first president he saw at the Navy base.

The president often would land there and fly by helicopter to his Santa Barbara-area ranch.

Gallegly said the president's demeanor often would change on the five-hour flight west, becoming more relaxed as the plane neared its destination, which provided an unparalleled view of California's coastline.

"He was coming home," Gallegly said. "There is absolutely no question in my mind that Ronald Reagan felt a special connection to this place."

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