AUSTIN, Texas — The LBJ Foundation has raised millions of dollars and planned a pavilion by the LBJ Presidential Library to house the Air Force One jet on which Lyndon B. Johnson took his presidential oath.
Only one problem: The historic Boeing VC-137C aircraft is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, and that museum has no plans to part with it.
Now a bureaucratic tug-of-war is under way for the iconic plane, with leaders in Texas and Ohio enlisting their congressional delegates to carry their case up the military ranks to the secretary of the Air Force and the secretary of defense.
“We do not want an adversarial fight, but we want to make our case as to why that plane should be relocated to Austin,” said Tom Johnson, the foundation’s chairman emeritus and also a former assistant to LBJ. The museum could loan the plane to the foundation, he said: “We would love for it to be a permanent loan.”
The LBJ Foundation — a nonprofit that supports the LBJ Presidential Library and the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas — believes the plane would attract thousands of visitors to the Austin campus. Tom Johnson points to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., which averaged about 250,000 visitors a year before acquiring the Gipper’s Air Force One in 2005. Now that library sees 350,000 visitors a year, said Melissa Giller, the director of communications for the Reagan Foundation.
Both of LBJ’s daughters said this week they support moving the plane to Austin. Luci Baines Johnson said the plane has a “magnetism and attraction” and would be “an incredible teaching tool.”
“It would movingly express our story to generations of schoolchildren for whom we are part of the past,” she said.
She said her father circled the globe in that plane on a 1967 trip that included a visit to Australia for the prime minister’s funeral and “ending up at Christmastime coming to see the pope and trying to embrace his support for those involved in the peace process in Vietnam.” LBJ also flew home to Texas on the plane at the end of his presidency in 1969, she said.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force notes the plane’s history is much bigger than LBJ, though: It was the first Air Force One, created for John F. Kennedy with a color scheme partly designed by his wife, and it served eight commanders in chief through Bill Clinton. The museum, which turned down the LBJ Foundation’s first request for the plane last spring, calls the aircraft the “centerpiece” of its Presidential Gallery, which includes the official aircraft of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as five smaller presidential planes.
“The collection of presidential aircraft and their holistic display is unique to the (National Museum of the U.S. Air Force), allowing visitors to see and experience an unbroken continuum of over six decades of Air Force and national history,” spokeswoman Diana Bachert said Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and Rep. Michael Turner, both Republicans from Ohio, sent a letter last week to the secretary of the Air Force arguing that “significantly fewer visitors would be exposed to the aircraft if it were removed from the NMUSAF and relocated to the LBJ Presidential Library.” The Air Force museum draws about a million visitors a year, seven times the crowd drawn to the LBJ Library.
“Occupying nearly 14 acres, the LBJ Library lacks the necessary facilities to house an aircraft the size of Air Force One,” the letter added.
Tom Johnson said the foundation has the space and private donations to build a pavilion for the plane, however. And he noted the Air Force museum has numerous other aircraft and could get another plane that has served as Air Force One.
“They have many splendid historical aircraft, and we would just like one,” he said.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell believes the plane’s special connection to LBJ should weigh into the decision on where it is displayed.
“A lot of presidents used it, including President Kennedy, but LBJ was actually sworn in on that airplane, which makes a special case for having it at least to some degree for some period of time at the LBJ museum,” Leffingwell said. “It’s part of his narrative; the arc of his life story.”
Ben Barnes, a board member of the LBJ Foundation and the former lieutenant governor of Texas, said Tuesday that he wasn’t discouraged by the letter that Portman and Turner wrote to the secretary of the Air Force. “That letter was not by any means the last blow landed in this fight,” said Barnes. He said Austin “was a superior location” for LBJ’s airplane compared to “a town in Ohio.”
“I think it would be a great thing for Austin and for Texas to see President Johnson’s Air Force One returned to its rightful place adjacent to the LBJ library,” he said.
LBJ Presidential Library
- Attendance: More than 136,000 visitors annually.
- Size: 140,000 square feet.
- Features: 45 million pages of documents, 650,000 photos and 1 million feet of film.
- Exhibits: Permanent exhibits about civil rights, the Oval Office, the first family as well as the presidential limousine and an animatronic LBJ with a recording of the president telling humorous stories. Temporary exhibits include photographs of American soldiers from the Civil War to the war in Iraq and an exhibit of the surgeon general’s report about smoking.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
- Attendance: More than 1 million visitors annually.
- Size: 1 million square feet, with a 220,000-square-foot addition planned.
- Features: More than 360 aircraft and missiles on display as well as historical items that chronicle the evolution of flight.
Exhibits: Five main galleries include planes from World War I, World War II, the conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia, and present military aircraft as well as presidential airplanes.