The Week Merced County Made the Cover of Life Magazine


The Week Merced County Made the Cover of Life Magazine

For those of you under the age of twenty-five, there once was a time when Life magazine was a big deal.  Now limited to such things as occasional special books commemorating significant historical events, the magazine name has no real impact on society. 

January 28, 1957

But back in its heyday, it was a special achievement for a person, place, or event to be featured in the magazine.  It was truly outstanding when that story made the cover of the publication.

That’s the story behind the January 28, 1957 issue that featured a United States Air Force jet on the cover.  The story inside was about Operation Power Flite, the first-ever around-the-world flight of a jet without landing to refuel.  

Operation Power Flite, and I note the Air Force used a spelling of the word that the rest of us spell as “flight”, began at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater. 

The contingent of three aircraft took off from Castle on a cold January morning.  One plane developed mechanical troubles and had to land.   A second plant left the group, as planned, over Great Britain. 

The third made it around the world.  Thanks to aerial refueling, the jet could keep going for the forty-five hours it took to circle the planet.

CAM Entrance
CAM Entrance

Although the jets started from Castle, the mission didn’t end there.  Foggy conditions in Merced County led to the decision to land at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. 

Operation Power Flite

Behind the controls for the landing at March was Major General Archie Old.  March Air Force Base became a reserve military base in 1996.  The military golf course at that base is now a public golf course named for him.

Operation Power Flite was an important chapter in our nation’s military aviation history.  In 1957, in the middle of the Cold War, it was important for the United States to send the message that it could scramble a group of aircraft from any place in the world within minutes, and keep those planes flying for as long it would take.   It was the kind of deterrent many thought would keep the Soviets at bay.  

The mission was considered by military experts to be a significant development in aviation.

 Castle Air Museum

The role Castle Air Force Base played in the nation’s defense has been well documented by the Castle Air Museum.  The Museum created a small display area within its’ permanent collection area to commemorate Operation Power Flite. 

The staff and volunteers at the Museum are very helpful in assisting visitors as they learn more about the aircraft and the people who helped keep our nation safe during the years Castle Air Force Base was in operation.

CAM 3-planes
CAM 3-planes

It’s easy to go to the Castle Air Museum and be overwhelmed by the outstanding collection of military aircraft.  But if you happen to go there in the near future, spend some time in the exhibit building and find the Operation Power Flite display. 

Ask a volunteer for more information about the mission.  Remember how important that flight from over fifty-five years ago was to our nation.  

The story of this history making flight during the Cold War put a Castle on the cover of Life magazine.  The Castle Air Museum as well as the Merced County Historical Society has a copy of that magazine. 

The story took up over a dozen pages in that week’s issue.  The pages are so large that it’s impossible to copy a single page on a regular eight-by-eleven or eight-by-fourteen inch copy machine. 

Magazines were much bigger back in the 1950’s; not only in the size of the pages, but also in the influence wielded in our society.  

Magazines back then were a big deal.  And Life magazine, especially the cover story on Life magazine, was a really big deal.

Steve Newvine  lives in Merced