All aboard the Air Force One Experience

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While it may be a tall order to get aboard either of the real ones, climbing into a Boeing 747 that has been made into an exact replica of Air Force One is as easy as reserving a spot online and heading down to where it sits on display at Quonset Airport.

As part of their mission to excite the next generation about American democracy, the Children's Democracy Project spent years transforming a regular jumbo jet into a museum piece - dubbed the Air Force One Project - which will allow up to 50 people at a time to get an intimate look at how the president of the United States travels around the country, and the world.

"When we talk about Air Force One, one of the things we always talk about is the opportunity to see what the inside of Air Force One looks like," said Ari Scharf, who chairs the Children's Democracy Project board, at an unveiling press event last Thursday. "That's one of the things that we knew would not only generate interest in children, but the general public as well."

The striking recreation will remain in Quonset until Oct. 31, and will then be hauled by barge to New York City and then to its final destination in Washington D.C. Although the experience available in Rhode Island is a scaled back preview compared to what will be seen in New York and D.C., it is still a remarkably interesting accomplishment that should appeal to history and avionics enthusiasts alike.

Reservations are necessary to gain access to the exhibit. Tours run seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets to reserve a spot cost $17.50 for adults and $10 for children. Residents of Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut were given a first-come, first-serve opportunity to reserve free tickets online at AirForceOneExperience.com when the exhibit went live. More than 9,000 of these free tickets sold out within three days of the exhibit's announcement. Weekend slots are said to be filling fast, so reserve quickly.

The exhibit was temporarily closed due to concerns over Hurricane Jose, but will be open once again on Friday, Sept. 22. Anyone who reserved a spot for a time during the temporary closure will have the opportunity to reschedule their reservation at no additional cost.

Prior to entering the 232-foot long, 63-foot tall, 195-foot wingspan aircraft, ticket holders will be able to enter a tented area that holds various presidential artifacts throughout history - including a jet black, 1960 Lincoln Continental Limousine used in John F. Kennedy's motorcade, a seat that Kennedy sat in aboard his era of Air Force One, a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln and a variety of artifacts emblazoned with the presidential seal, from cigarettes to Hershey's Kisses.

Also displayed inside the tent is an infographic timeline and two videos that give the history of Air Force One and provide insight into how the Children's Democracy Project created their full-scale replica.

Inside the plane, visitors can stroll down the hallway and view the spacious conference room, the sick bay, the president and first lady's chamber and the executive room in which the president may address the nation while being in the air. Pictures of various presidents aboard the plane, including a rare shot of Reagan sporting sweatpants, adorn the main hallway.

Providing unmatched perspective into the tours is Chief Master Sergeant Howard "Howie" Franklin, who began his military career at 20 years old as an enlisted member of the Air Force and went on to become the lead flight attendant on Air Force One for 18 years, working directly with five presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton).

It was Franklin who provided many of the unique Air Force One artifacts that he had collected from his years onboard. He also helped provide minute details to ensure that the recreation of the plane's interior was as close to perfect as possible. The only slight variations that were made were increases to the width of some doorways to make the exhibit fully handicap-accessible.

"That's why we have it as a visual aid," Franklin said on the value of the plane as a showpiece for the Children's Democracy Project. "It's something that excites people from all over the world."

Recollecting on many experiences with some of the most important men in the world, Franklin stated that his personal favorite story was the time he had to tell Bill Clinton, exhausted and refusing to wake up prior to an event in Moscow, to "wake his [butt] up and do his job." He recalled an astounded Hillary Clinton laughing hysterically at this.

"I said, 'Don't you laugh,'" he said. "You're next!"

The Children's Democracy Project is a for-profit entity that strives to engage younger generations and get them interested in the process of Democracy. Scharf said that he hopes that the Air Force One Project will successfully generate interest among hundreds of thousands of children.

"One of the things we plan to do down the road is to have as much corporate participation as we possibly can so that we can get this message out to the children," he said. "They're so important to the future of this country, especially in a time right now where there's so much going on that some kids may feel a little disconnected, that our idea is to bring them back and to bring them back with things they know best - which in most cases is planes, trains and automobiles."

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