There is a mystery brewing in the back of SAM 27000, the Special Air Mission aircraft that became Air Force One whenever one of seven presidents to use the aircraft was on board. The one who used the aircraft the most was Ronald Reagan, and that explains why the aircraft that returned him to Santa Barbara, California, when his second term ended is now on exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. An 87,000-square-foot pavilion housing the Boeing 707 opened to the public in late October 2005 in a ceremony that included Nancy Reagan, President George W. Bush, and his wife, Laura. President Bush flew on the aircraft only once, and that was in 2001, to add to its history. His father, George H.W. Bush, used it 57 times before switching over to the Boeing 747 that now serves as Air Force One. After getting upstaged by the 747, SAM 27000 remained in service as the backup Air Force One, and for other missions.
Oh, yes, the mystery. In the back, the very back where the press corps rode (typically the press pays first-class fare plus a percentage), was a large galley used to prepare meals and drinks for all but the president and his wife. There remains in that galley a sign on a water dispenser: "'THE HAWK' WATER." Melissa Giller of the Reagan library staff said no one there knows what the sign means. Who is "The Hawk"? Chances are good, given our readership, that one of you knows, or knows someone who knows. You'll, of course, want to tell the museum staff, but tell us, too, OK?
There have been several 707s used as Air Force One, but only this one carried seven presidents. It is restored not as it was in the Reagan era, when there was tan upholstery and wooden paneling, but as it was after it was refurbished for those who followed Reagan. It was first used by Richard M. Nixon (30 times), followed by: Gerald R. Ford (55 times), Jimmy Carter (86 times), Reagan (211 times), George H.W. Bush (57 times), Bill Clinton (five times), and George W. Bush.
SAM 27000 replaced SAM 26000, the aircraft that was used for swearing in Lyndon B. Johnson as president after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Following the ceremony it carried Kennedy's body back to Washington, D.C. That aircraft is now in the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. SAM 26000 replaced SAM 970, which carried President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy and had a red paint scheme that Jackie Kennedy thought inappropriate to represent the United States. At her request, a new blue color scheme was designed that remains in use today. That aircraft is on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle. All three aircraft are the property of the U.S. government, and are on loan to the respective museums housing them.
But the government would have a tough time getting SAM 27000 back. Nearly $150,000 worth of steel holds the 140,000-pound aircraft to reinforced pedestals that hoist the aircraft into the air, raising the nose 2 degrees — as it would appear at rotation. The pedestals are firmly anchored in the bedrock beneath the library. If the aircraft could be removed, the government would then have to ask all the Boeing employees from Long Beach, California, to return to disassemble the aircraft, as they did at San Bernardino, California, for its twisting trip in the fog up the 1.2-mile road to the top of the mountain to the library's location. It wouldn't be easy.
The aircraft, which was moved through the back of the building, was mounted on rails and then raised by jacks to the pedestals, where it was eased into place. It is meant to appear as though it is taking off through a glass wall ahead that is 185 feet wide and 60 feet high. The aircraft's location in the museum is reached by a circuitous route that takes you past exhibits from several phases of Reagan's career and ends with a hallway aimed at the cockpit. There is also an elevator from the ground level. You can walk around it, beneath it, and through it.
This is not how the other half lives: This is how only the president, his family, and staff live, and you'll have a rare opportunity to see where history was made. Entry is past the front door with a presidential seal, where, for a fee, you can have your picture taken. Docent Lydia Vargas, dressed as a crewmember, says, "Welcome aboard." Her words echo those of Mrs. Reagan during the exhibit's dedication ceremony.
"It seems like yesterday that Ronnie and I took our last flight aboard Air Force One as we headed west for what he playfully called 'retirement.' I can still see Ronnie peering out the window in our cabin as he watched Washington disappear against the landscape," Mrs. Reagan said. "Looking back on that last flight, I am reminded of how difficult it was saying goodbye to the people who had meant so much to us. As the champagne was poured and glasses were raised, someone shouted, 'Mission accomplished, Mr. President. Mission accomplished.' On behalf of Ronnie and me, welcome aboard."
The cockpit has no moving map, so how on earth did the pilots find 26 nations and more than 150 U.S. cities? Very easily, apparently. It's just that today's generation has been spoiled by GPS.
Behind the cockpit is a galley that served only the president and his wife. Across the aisle is the communications center that, for all its buttons and lights, seems primitive by today's standards. Next comes the president's cabin. Since the airplane is in the Reagan library, a jar of jellybeans sits on the table used by the president. A jacket with his name and "Air Force One" embroidered on it hangs on the back of the chair, as it did in photos of Reagan taken in flight. The state room is interconnected to the first lady's state room, and she, too, has a desk. A private bathroom completes the suite.
Next is a lounge for the president's chief of staff, cabinet members, and other VIPs. The next area is where the Air Force officer rode; he carried the "football," the black bag with the launch codes in case of a nuclear attack.
Then came seating for the U.S. Secret Service, and finally, reporters. Those seats are in the back on the left, by the rear door.
After the president landed, of course, he often transferred to a Sikorsky Sea King Marine Corps helicopter that used the call sign Marine One when he was on board. Present on the lower level of the $32 million Air Force One Pavilion (it was originally planned to cost $12 million) is the helicopter used by Johnson. It is hoped that, perhaps by 2010, a helicopter used by Reagan can be obtained. (No tax dollars were spent in the building of the pavilion, which was funded by private donations.)
Sometimes the president transferred to a motorcade. Near the helicopter are two 1980s-era motorcycles, a police car, and Reagan's 1984 Cadillac limousine. There is also a 1986 Chevrolet Suburban used by the Secret Service.
Equally interesting but located elsewhere in the museum is a full-scale replica of the White House Oval Office. The Reagan library is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is $12. You can learn more at the library's Web site or by calling 800/410-8354.
The closest place to land is Camarillo Airport, where Janie Oberman and Mark Oberman, who started Channel Islands Aviation at the airport, will be happy to order you an Enterprise rental car if you call in advance. There's an excellent airport restaurant called The Waypoint Café. On any weekend, the airport is like an airshow. Call Channel Islands Aviation at 805/987-1301 so that the car can be delivered to the airport prior to your arrival. The airport was used by many attending the opening of the Air Force One Pavilion that featured President George W. Bush and Mrs. Reagan. The Obermans also offer aerial tours of the Channel Islands.
The route from the airport to the museum was checked. You'll take U.S. Highway 101 south to state Route 23 north, and will travel 21.7 miles to the Reagan library parking lot from Camarillo Airport. Signs mark the turnoff from state Route 23 to the library.
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