Sam McManis

Discoveries: A former Air Force One in Atwater

Yeah, the presidential easy chair on this Air Force One, where Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton once rested their tushes while jetting to far-flung locales, is impressive and all.

Battleship gray-leather-upholstered, with a deeply padded, 24-inch-wide bucket seat and tufted backrest, it sometimes was referred to, back in the day, as “The Throne.” Even cooler, a direct phone line to the White House – beige, not red – was installed within arm’s reach.

But when I rambled down Highway 99 recently to alight at the Castle Air Museum for a tour of the decommissioned McDonnell Douglas VC-9C that once carried presidents, first ladies and vice presidents, my attention was drawn more to another seat of power, the one inside the lavatory.

That’s because Joe Pruzzo, the air museum’s CEO and the force behind getting this historic plane to the Central Valley, tells a wonderful story involving former Vice President Dan Quayle and the lavatory in question.

“So they did a landing at night at a smaller air field somewhere in the U.S.,” Pruzzo said. “The pilots would shut everything down and do a ‘quiet arrival,’ with the lights going out and the engines off. They didn’t want to draw attention. After they land, the Secret Service comes up to the pilot and says, ‘We’re getting off the plane and we’re waiting for Scorecard. We can’t find Scorecard.’ That was Dan Quayle’s Secret Service code name.

“Anyway, they were frantically searching. After they leave, there’s a knock on the (inside of the) lavatory door. ‘Uh, excuse me, help.’ It’s Dan Quayle, stuck in the lavatory in the dark. The pilot helps him out and tells him, ‘OK, the Secret Service is looking for you.’ Quayle got a big grin and said, ‘Good, let ’em sweat.’ Quayle used to call the Secret Service ‘squirrels’ and liked to mess with them.

“Quayle traipses off the plane, and then the Secret Service comes back aboard and they are having a cow. ‘Where’s Scorecard?’ The pilot says, ‘I don’t know. You mean they lost the vice president?’ ”

You know, the anecdote kind of makes me like Quayle a little more, leads me to revise my opinion of his whole “heartbeat away” tenure – his spelling of potato notwithstanding.

Of course, there’s far more than just bathroom humor to be absorbed on a visit to this Air Force One, one in a fleet in service from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, that just recently made its home in Baja Merced.

You’ll get to see the “jump seat” that Reagan had installed in the doorway leading to the cockpit so that he could chat up the pilots and watch them push buttons and turn knobs and fly the big bird. Docent Kim Heyer doesn’t think Reagan ever took over the controls, his only aviation experience being his narration of the World War II propaganda film “Target Tokyo.” You’ll see the inner sanctum of the cabin, where the aforementioned swiveling presidential arm chair sits next to the couch that folds out to a bed and the wood-grained desk for meetings. And you’ll see the less spacious – but still leather – seats where the press corps was parked.

If you gently prod, you’ll also get Pruzzo to tell you how in the world Merced County came to be the final resting place for a prime piece of presidential ephemera. It’s not quite as entertaining as the Quayle bathroom story, but impressive nonetheless.

First, some background: Castle Air Museum, next to the former Castle Air Force Base, has steadily accumulated an arsenal of historic military airplanes since opening in 1981. It now hosts close to 60 pristinely preserved aircraft, from a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress to a Grumman F-14D Tomcat. Pruzzo boasts that it’s one of the largest air museums on the West Coast.

Still, he admits to being surprised last May when his secretary told him the General Services Administration called and offered the museum “an aircraft that we think would definitely fit your museum.”

“The note said they wanted to offer is a VC-9,” Pruzzo said. “I thought that was nice but a DC-9 is not a military aircraft, per se. So I called them back and they told me it was military DC-9. I still was a little unsure. Then they said it carried a couple of presidents, vice presidents and first ladies. OK, it clicked now.”

There actually were two Air Force One VC-9s looking for homes. One had already been promised to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Ore. Several museums, Puzzo said, expressed interest in the second aircraft, including the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, which already has an Air Force One that flew seven U.S. presidents from 1973 to 2001, but apparently sought anything associated with The Gipper.

“We didn’t know we were going to get the airplane for a month and a half after we put in the letter of intent,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, Castle Air Museum? Why not? Shoot the moon and go for it.’ There are 49 other states vying for it, museums like the Smithsonian. We got support from the GSA in Sacramento and from Congressman (Jim) Costa (D-Fresno, who once flew in the plane with first lady Rosalynn Carter). We were hoping.”

When word came down, Pruzzo was ecstatic. Oh, but the GSA then informed Pruzzo that Castle was responsible for transporting the plane to Atwater from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

“It flies, so that was great, but there was this little thing of fuel and getting it ready to fly,” Pruzzo said. “The onsite (in Arizona) fuel supplier was UVair and we contacted its corporate office in Houston, told we had a great offer and could they help us with fuel. They donated 3,000 gallons of jet fuel. It was worth about $15,000. In this business, you’ve got to think of all the angles.”

So, in October, Air Force One touched down at Atwater’s airport. Castle’s volunteers spent two months sprucing it up and began tours on weekends in late December.

The plane still resides at the airport, so museum-goers must form a convoy of cars to drive the quarter-mile to view it. Eventually, Pruzzo said, the plane will move to the museum grounds, depending on the speed of fundraising efforts to build a “Presidential Pavilion” to house it.

“It’s a time capsule, definitely a treasure,” he said. “A lot of history happened on that airplane.”

And in the lavatory.