It's hard to believe that Castle Air Museum in Atwater is celebrating thirty years in the community. I've been in the Central Valley for seven years and it seems the time has, pardon the pun, been flying by.
I got to know Museum Executive Director Joe Pruzo and some members of the team at Castle a few years ago. We were part of a group trying to organize a car show at the museum with the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce.
I left the Chamber in 2007 but continued to keep in contact with the organization.
Last summer, I reached out to Castle for a book I was writing on unique things along highway 99. Castle Air Museum, while not on highway 99, was close enough to the roadway and significant to my telling readers about things they shouldn't miss when traveling up and down the valley.
Joe told me how museums such as this one have been a primary source for keeping the history of America's military aviation alive.
"Back in the years following World War, II, the military was begging cities to take a wartime aircraft and put it on display," Joe told me. "Some did, and many now wished they had."
Aircraft not claimed by communities in those early post war years were headed for the scrap metal heap. Many planes made it on that journey of no return. But thanks to the dedication of volunteers and the cooperation of military installations such as Castle Air Force Base, many planes were saved.
For the first fifteen years of its’ existence, Castle Air Museum could count on a watchful benefactor helping the museum preserve these historic relics. That benefactor was the Castle Air Force Base. "The Air Base was extremely helpful in taking care of the Museum's immediate needs," Joe told me in the interview I did for my book.
When the Air Base closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closing Act (BRAC) in the 1990's, it was time to see whether appreciation for the aircraft was indeed part of the fabric of the community.
It was. Some years were a struggle, but the Museum continued to pay some bills, acquire more aircraft, and perhaps more importantly, create greater awareness among volunteers, supporters, and the community at large.
We may take such events as Open Cockpit days, Halloween Fright Night, Christmas Plane Lane, and the recent thirtieth anniversary open house (held March 20) for granted.
These events raise money to keep the program going. Each is important to build on the brand that is Castle Air Museum.
How many times are you asked what is there to do in Merced County? And how many times does Castle Air Museum become part of your answer to that question?
And now, the sixty-four dollar question: have you taken the time recently to visit the museum?
The next time you get a chance, go to the museum indoor history area and look up the display for Operation Power Flite (yes, the Air Force spelled flite that way when they named this historic mission).
You'll read about an incredible milestone reached in military aviation more than fifty years ago. And it all started right here in Merced County at the Castle Air Force Base.
You'll be proud of the folks who have worked so hard to preserve military aviation history so that it can be shared with the rest of the world.
You'll learn about an event so historic, it made the cover of Life magazine. And you'll be proud to live in Merced County, California.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.