Fake Air Force One opens in Rhode Island, for now

Howie Franklin, who served five presidents as steward aboard Air Force One, is seen in front of a replica of the plane on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, at Quonset Airport in North Kingstown, R.I. (David Collins/The Day)
Howie Franklin, who served five presidents as steward aboard Air Force One, is seen in front of a replica of the plane on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017, at Quonset Airport in North Kingstown, R.I. (David Collins/The Day)

The most obvious genuineness I could discern at Thursday's unveiling of a strange new pop-up museum in Rhode Island, featuring a full-scale replica of Air Force One, came from Howie Franklin, who served as chief steward to five presidents aboard the official flying White House.

Franklin, now retired from the service and the manager of a regional airport in North Carolina, was the star of a media unveiling of the Air Force One replica, which will be open for public tours — at $17.50 a head — for at least the next few weeks at Quonset Airport in North Kingstown, where the former cargo 747 was refitted to look like the plane that carries presidents.

Franklin, when pressed, was able to cough up some good presidential anecdotes from his time serving them, including the time he got Hillary Clinton to laugh when he entered the presidential stateroom at 3 a.m. to tell Bill it was time to get the hell up.

Indeed, Franklin is the only person I've ever heard brag about being the one to often "wake up" Hillary Clinton and "put her to bed."

Beyond Franklin's reminiscing about his years on the real Air Force One — there are more than one in service at any time and a number of them have been retired over the years — Thursday's news conference stayed pretty clear of direct answers.

The replica is the work of an organization called the Children's Democracy Project, and Ari Scharf, chairman of the board, made a tortured explanation Thursday of how children are supposed to learn about democracy by touring the plane.

I can't do his explanation justice, but it includes some talk about how Air Force One is an icon of democracy around the world.

I got the impression from all the talk of teaching children that this is a nonprofit organization. But, no, when pressed, Scharf said it is not. He would also not disclose how much has been spent on the replica.

The future of this new business venture is also a bit uncertain, it seems.

Some reports from the time the plane first landed at Quonset suggested that it would never fly again and that the engines from the retired cargo plane would be sold off.

Scharf insisted Thursday that reports that the plane cannot fly are not true. But despite some insistent questions, he could not explain exactly why it would not likely fly again.

Instead — this is where it gets strange — the big plane will be loaded onto a barge at Quonset and set off on a tour of untold length and duration.

The first stop will be New York and the second Washington, Scharf said, although he could not disclose exactly where and when the plane will be on display in those cities.

He did suggest that the plane will remain on display at Quonset through October. It was to open to the public Thursday for tours.

In addition to the plane, visitors can tour a small exhibit center, under a tent on the tarmac, that includes some borrowed presidential memorabilia, including a cool limousine once used by President John F. Kennedy.

I went along to the unveiling Thursday because, as Sharf might tell you, there is an intriguing aspect to Air Force One, the traveling White House, and I, like many others might, jumped at the idea of seeing what it's like inside.

I am not qualified to say if it would be worth $17.50, but it is interesting, especially the big pictures of presidents aboard the plane, which line the main hallway.

One of these depicts Bill Clinton sitting at his desk, with a boom box at his elbow. Franklin told me he gave Clinton the music player because the president liked to listen to rock and roll and there was no way to play it only in the president's office, and not throughout the plane.

There is a picture of Obama petting his dog in the plane. There is a picture of George W. Bush looking out a window. This reminded me of the picture of him reviewing Katrina damage in New Orleans from Air Force One on his way back from the ranch in Texas.

Franklin said the rooms in the replica feel very much like the original, except where shortcuts have replaced, for instance, real leather and real wood with faux versions.

I found it generally unconvincing, an obvious replica, although it is fun to step out the main door, next to the presidential seal, and imagine all those state visits made by presidents around the world.

And it is interesting to me that, at a time when real President Donald Trump claims real criminal investigations into his campaign are nothing more than fake news, that someone comes along marketing a fake Air Force One.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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