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For President Johnson's 102nd birthday, aircraft becomes showpiece acquisition at LBJ Ranch

Luci Baines Johnson remembers as a teenager riding in a shiny mirror-finished jet trimmed with sky blue and white paint and emblazoned with black letters proclaiming "United States of America," then landing on a narrow Texas airstrip behind what Americans would come to know as the Western White House.

"A country runway," she said this week of the roughly mile-long airstrip behind President Lyndon Johnson's ranch, her childhood home and now part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.

The National Park Service, which manages the park, will formally acquire the JetStar aircraft Johnson used as vice president — then during his five-plus years as the nation's 36th president — on Friday, LBJ's 102nd birthday.

Rescued from a scrap yard in the Arizona desert where it had been mothballed and cannibalized for parts, the four-engine Lockheed C-140 JetStar has been refurbished on the outside to look as good as new.

Five trucks brought pieces of the plane earlier this month to the LBJ Ranch about 70 miles west of Austin, where it was reassembled as a permanent exhibit for visitors, who should number about 100,000 this year. It's displayed under an open-air hangar on the same spot where it was parked in the 1960s.

"I am one of those just thrilled to death to have it coming home," Johnson's younger daughter said. "And I think my daddy would be just tickled beyond words."

Acquiring the plane was the idea of James U. Cross, a retired Air Force brigadier general who served as Johnson's pilot and top military assistant. Cross spotted one on display about four or five years ago at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

"We ought to get one of the JetStars he flew in," Cross, 85, said he told Russ Whitlock, superintendent of the national historical park.

When the new jets came into Air Force service in the early 1960s, five were assigned to the White House fleet. Johnson convinced President John F. Kennedy that as vice president he deserved planes of his own.

Cross flew the first one and became Johnson's permanent pilot after he got a tardy vice president to a Florida meeting with Kennedy on time — by breaking Air Force regulations barring long flights over water, in this case, the Gulf of Mexico. Cross thought the stunt might have doomed his career. Instead, it impressed Johnson. Cross later moved to Air Force One when Johnson became president following Kennedy's death.

In July 2009, Whitlock received word one of the planes Johnson used was in an aircraft graveyard outside Tucson, Ariz. He also learned the plane had been transferred from the Air Force to a scrap dealer. Fortunately for him, the dealer found another aircraft and the JetStar was available.

"It was structurally in good shape," Whitlock said. "Inside, the cockpit seats were gone, the radar system and equipment removed. Some of the seats were taken out.

"I think we will eventually restore the interior. We just couldn't do it all at one time."

Straube's Aircraft Services of Kingman, Ariz., got the $90,000 job to refinish the exterior, complete with presidential blue paint and gold trim that photos show distinguished the aircraft from others.

"I cried when I first saw it," Cross said. "I was delighted to see it come home to the ranch."

Cross remembered Johnson wanting the JetStar "available for his use or for special purpose use," like tending to the needs of former President Dwight Eisenhower or U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader during Johnson's White House years.

"I think it's extremely important for visitors at the ranch to be able to see how he ran the presidency during his time," Cross said. "Those JetStars were extremely important."

The planes were a delight to fly, Cross said. The Boeing 707 that served as Air Force One was nice, but the JetStar "was kind of like a sports car as compared to 18-wheelers," he said. At 60-feet long and 54-feet wide, it could carry 13 passengers plus crew at speeds exceeding 500 mph. Johnson called it Air Force One-Half.

"The JetStar made it possible for him to come out to the ranch, get in the car, go watch the sunset and the deer and gain a sense of renewal, see old and good friends who had been there for him all of his days," Luci Johnson said. "It was a very very special part of our lives."

___

Online:

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park http://www.nps.gov/lyjo/

Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historical Site http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/lyndon_b_johnson/

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