Castle Airport and Air Museum

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

A few years ago, Castle AFB in California's central valley was a busy Strategic Air Command facility. Today, it's a decidedly un-busy general aviation airport with a mammouth 12,000-foot runway, a nice FBO, and a superb seven-acre outdoor aviation museum with one of the most extraordinary collections of USAF bomber and fighter aircraft west of Wright-Patterson. If you're hungry, you can get a decent burger at the museum's Flight of Fancy Grill, or buzz over to Harris Ranch (one of the best fly-in restaurants in California) about 15 minutes to the south. Here's all the information you need to plan your fly-in visit, plus a complete list (and some nice photos) of the historic aircraft at the museum.

Castle Airport, in California's Central Valley, is the home of a superb aviation museum and a few other attractions which make it worthy of a day-trip by general aviation pilots, and especially those with an interest in military aviation history. The airport is located next to the town of Atwater, north of Merced, making it an easy afternoon trip for Bay Area pilots, and a slightly longer flight for those from Southern California.

Castle is an ex-military airport, in the midst of transformation. When the Strategic Air Command moved out a few years ago, local authorities determined to utilize the existing facilities as profitably as possible, while maintaining the unique airport's ability to thrive, and planning for revenue from development of aircraft maintenance, freight operations or other aviation facilities.

Today only half the vision has been realized. Pac Bell arrived in force, turning many of the administrative buildings into "customer disservice" centers. The base hospital is now a civilian medical center. The auditorium, bowling alley and officer's club have been converted to civilian use. A variety of other businesses ranging from light manufacturing to telesales operations are occupying many of the other structures. The aviation museum gets a steady stream of visitors. But the aviation side of the field is still looking for a major tenant or two to keep the huge ramp and 11,802'x300' runway busy.

Long Landing Approved

Castle's mammouth Runway 31
Short final to Castle's mammouth
11,802' x 300' Runway 31.

In the meantime, this huge expanse of concrete is available to any small plane pilot who cares to use it. To general aviation pilots who are used to searching for hard-to-find airports, the approach to Castle is truly a unique experience. The runway is visible from 20 miles away and fills the windshield on final approach. I found Castle to be an ideal place for landing practice, as my club prohibits touch-and-goes in high-performance aircraft but this runway's length allows for easy stop-and-go operations. In fact the runway is so big that it makes sense to think ahead and perhaps not touch down too soon. If you touch down on the numbers, you'll have to taxi about 3000 feet just to get to the first turnoff! For instrument pilots, runway 31 also offers an ILS approach.

I probably could have parked in a spot formerly occupied by a B-52, but that's not a good idea. The old bomber pads are a long walk from anywhere interesting and don't offer tiedowns or fuel. A much more practical option is to park near the main terminal building, now occupied by Trajen Flight Services.

Airport Diagram
Castle Airport diagram, courtesy of
Pilots Guide to California Airports.

Facilities, Fuel, Food

Trajen has a fairly nice setup, as they took over several military conference rooms, lounges etc. If you buy avgas from them, they'll throw in a free ride to the Museum and two complementary entrance tickets. I didn't need the gas, so decided to walk over, taking time to note the gradual conversion of the airbase facilities to civilian commerce. At present time, Trajen is open 7am-6pm every day.

For the arriving aviator there are two places to eat, in the bowling alley or in the museum. I had no desire to go to the bowling alley, so decided to eat at the museum when I got there. A cafe in the terminal building didn't survive on the minimal local traffic, but there is talk of a "real" restaurant at the museum sometime soon. Pilots might also want to consider combining the trip to Castle with a lunch or dinner at Harris Ranch (3O8) which is just 40 miles south, and serves up some of the best steaks west of Chicago.

The Main Attraction: Castle Air Museum

The museum is a ten minute walk from transient parking at Trajen. Walk straight out towards the base main gate, pass the memorial parade grounds, turn right next to the old base chapel (now a science learning center), and look for a small gate in the fence to the museum's parking lot. You can't miss the SR-71 standing out front!

The SR-71 is prominently featured in the front parking lot, and is logically the first aircraft visited. The plaque notes that it is "on loan from the U.S. Air Force Museum." The same notice is repeated on most of the aircraft plaques. The museum was started with the support of the Air Force and handed over to a non-profit civil committee when the base was closed, but the USAF has retained official "ownership" of many of the aircraft.

The museum is a seven acre outdoor complex, with walkways between the planes. Many major types used during and since World War Two are on display, but in keeping with Castle's history, much of the emphasis is on bombers.

You enter the musuem through a building housing the gift shop and Flight of Fancy Grill, where a decent burger and other basics can be found for a reasonable price. $5 gets you entry to the museum and a look at the entire collection, which is still growing. One of the volunteers told me that they have the largest collection west of the Mississippi, "unless you count all the wrecks in the desert which Pima claims as airplanes in its collection." The museum is staffed by such volunteers, some of whom flew the types of aircraft on display or had been affiliated with the air base in one way or another.

B-25 "Mitchell"
B-25 "Mitchell" in the Museum's collection.

The first two planes you encounter inside are a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator. Nearby, you'll find many others of the same era, including a B-25, B-18, B-29, and A-26. This B-24 is notable for service in Europe, and also for being the last of the type ever produced. Castle's B-29 was re-assembled from parts of 3 hulks recovered at China Lake and is rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. However, it's nose section still features original battle markings and nose-art from one of the salvaged aircraft. Nearby, a B-25 is one of many aircraft in good condition which features restored nose-art.

Further into the complex, more modern bombers can be found, including a B-47 Stratojet (the last ever to fly) and a B-52, which is displayed with a large jet-propelled drone below the left wing. This unusual craft is a Hound Dog missile, an early version of today's cruise missiles that carried a thermonuclear warhead and featured an inertial/stellar navigation system. The B-52 could carry two Hound Dogs and their engines could be started before takeoff in order to provide extra power and convert the Buff into a ten-engined airplane!

C-46D "Honey Cat"
C-46D "Commando" in the Museum's collection.

Next is a KC-135 tanker originally based at Castle. This is one of the few aircraft at the museum that you can enter and it contains a small exhibit about the aircraft, the base, and the difficulty in moving this aircraft from the runway to the museum complex when it was retired.

Across from the heavy jet bombers and tankers is a row of early jet fighters from the U.S. and elsewhere. Also nearby is a selection of cargo and utility aircraft from the World War 2 years and later. A recently-restored C-47 (DC-3) features interesting "modern" nose art which was added in 1985, but is not typical of a WWII cargo plane. Adjacent to it is a more authentically painted C-46D, which survived 45 trips "over the hump," crossing the Himalayas between Burma and China during WWII.

rb-36.jpg (46466 bytes)
Two views of the RB-36H "Peacemaker" in the Museum's collection. Rear view shows six pusher engines and propellers, while front view shows cockpit and upper gun turret.

One of the last aircraft in the line is an RB-36H Peacemaker. This aircraft is unique in the world, being one of only four remaining B-36s, and the only existing "RB" variant. This type was the largest bomber ever produced, and designed to carry a single 25-foot, 21-ton Mark 17 nuclear bomb. The B-36 was also the last major piston-powered bomber, powered primarily by six 28-cylinder R-4360 engines mounted on the back of the wing in a pusher configuration and assisted by two pairs of J47-GE-19 turbojets in pods underneath the wings. When equipped for full bombing and reconnaissance work, the RB-36 carried a crew of 22 and could remain in the air for as long as 50 hours!

Out beyond the RB-36 is a large undeveloped area, with several aircraft awaiting restoration and space for many more. Among the aircraft waiting here are a C-54, C-119 and SA-16. The aircraft in this section were just barely rescued from the scrap heap and suffer from years of wear and tear.

Towards the end of the afternoon, I was alone at this end of the complex when a gust of wind blew up and one of the props on the unrestored C-54 started to turn slowly in the breeze. Then another puff started the second prop turning, almost as if the aircraft were trying to fly just one more time. A minute or two later the wind died down and everything stopped almost without a sound. I was the only one there to see it. It almost made me believe there ARE ghosts here. I beat a hasty retreat.

In the end I left somewhat depressed, despite the stellar job the museum is doing in preserving aviation history. Its a shame that these aircraft — most of which arrived here under their own power — are parked just half a mile from an unused and inviting runway, yet are unlikely to ever fly again.

Flight Planning Information

Museum Hours:
Memorial Day through October 1st: 9am to 5pm daily
October 1st through Memorial Day: 10am to 4pm daily
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day

Contact Telephone Numbers:
Castle Air Museum: (209) 723-2178
Gift Shop/Ticket Counter: (209) 723-2182
Flight of Fancy Grill: (209) 723-2177
Trajen Flight Support: (209) 725-1455
Airport Office: (209) 384-7325

Castle Airport fly-in information

Airport information courtesy of Pilots Guide to California Airports.

Full Listing of the Museum's Aircraft

Designation Nickname Notes
 
A-26 Invader  
B-17 Flying Fortress  
B-18 Bolo  
B-23 Dragon  
B-24 Liberator  
B-25 Mitchell  
B-29 Superfortress  
RB-36 Peacemaker The only one of this model still in existence
B-45A Tornado  
B-47 Stratojet  
WB-50 Stratofortress  
B-52D    
EB-57 Canberra  
B-2 Vulcan MkII RAF Colors
F-80C Shooting Star  
T-33 Shooting Star trainer
F-84F Thunderstreak  
F-86H Sabre  
F-89J Scorpion  
F-101 Voodoo  
F-104B Starfighter  
F-105 Thunderchief Thud
FB-111 Aardvark  
F-4E Phantom originally a Thunderbirds aircraft, painted in T-bird colors
CF-100 Mk V Cannuk Candian colors
C-45 Expediter military version of Beech 18
C-46D Commando  
C-47 Skytrain  
C-54 Skymaster new addition, still work in progress
C-60 Lodestar RAF/South African colors
C-119 Flying Boxcar recent addition, from the Forest Service, in progress
C-123 Provider  
KC-97 StratoFreighter  
KC-135 StratoTanker this airplane is open for "walk through"
AT-6 Texan  
BT-13 Voodoo  
T-34 Mentor  
SR-71 Blackbird  
SA-16 Albatross new addition, still in progress
HH-43B Huskie  
L-20 Beaver aka deHaviland Beaver
O-2A Super Skymaster military version of a C-337 (unrelated to the C-54)
U-3A   military version of the "tuna tank" C-310
KAQ-1 Drone