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Castle Air Museum offers up close look at nation’s warbirds

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POSTED July 14, 2012 1:29 a.m.

ATWATER - It was the ultimate Cold War spy plane marvel.

The SR-71 Blackbird stationed out of Beale Air Force Base northeast of Sacramento could take off and be over Idaho in 15 minutes under restricted speed.

The top speed was in excess of 2,193 miles per hour at an altitude of over 85,000 feet or 35 miles per minute. It holds numerous records including Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in an hour four minutes and 20 seconds and St. Louis to Washington, D.C. in 26 minutes.

It traveled above mach 3, or three times the speed of sound.

The Blackbird measures 99 feet by 55 feet with a height of 18 feet. Two thirds of the fuselage and half the wing space carries 12,200 gallons of unique fuel that has a unique kerosene base and has to be ignited by a catalyst, tetraethyl borane.

It was the ultimate Cold War spy plane equipped with optics that could pick up surprisingly minute detail from 85,000 people.

The SR-71 Blackbird is part of an extensive aircraft collection at Castle Air Museum. The SR71 alone is worth the 32-mile drive from Modesto to Atwater. Besides the planes there is an indoor museum. There is also a gift shop and banquet facility plus facilities for retreats.

When the closure of Castle Air Force Base was announced in 1994, a group of dedicated enthusiasts in the Atwater-Merced area formed a non-profit organization called the Castle Air Museum Foundation. Their purpose was to assume custody of the collection of aircraft. It was their dream to build a museum in which faithfully restored historic aircraft could be exhibited for public enjoyment.

Castle Air Museum represents history in a way the whole family can share with the nation’s awe-inspiring majestic warbirds.  To stand under the wing of the Convair RB-36H Peacemaker or the Boeing B-52, you can imagine the sky around the bombers filled with enemy fighters.

Then there’s the B-25 Mitchell, similar to the planes Jimmy Doolittle led off the carrier U.S.S. Hornet during this country’s first desperate attempt to bomb Tokyo.  The B-29 is here too- the bomber that ended World War II in the Pacific.

On the other end of the spectrum are the B-47 Stratojet and the British Avro Vulcan B.2. This nuclear bomber was the first of its type to be put on display in the United States. And from our closest ally and northern neighbor Canada, comes the Avro Canada (A.V. Roe Canada, Ltd.) CF-100 Canuck Mk V. It is the first straight-winged aircraft to ever break the sound barrier.

Preserving our military heritage

The aircraft on display at Castle Air Museum are as much a part of America’s heritage as Independence Hall and the Battlefield at Gettysburg, yet only a handful of these flying testimonials of our country’s Air Force and Navy have survived decades of neglect and the salvage torch.

Castle Air Force Base was named in honor of Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle.

General Castle earned a Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions while leading a 2,000-aircraft bomber formation over Europe on December 24, 1944. General Castle was born on October 14, 1908, in Manila, Philippines. After serving two years in the New Jersey National Guard, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. After graduating from the academy in June 1930, he was assigned to the Air Corps for flight training at March Field, California, and Kelly Field, Texas and completed his training in October 1931.

General Castle served as a pilot and Assistant Operations Officer with the 17th Pursuit Squadron at Selfridge Field, Michigan, until February 1934 when he resigned and returned to civilian life, holding reserve status with the New York National Guard.

Reentering active service in January 1942, General Castle was one of eight officers selected to accompany Major General Ira Eaker to England to form the Eighth Air Force.

Promoted to Colonel, he took command of the 94th Bomb Group and in April 1944, he became the commanding officer of the 4th Combat Bomb Wing. He led many combat missions, including a mission to Refensburg and in November 1944 he was promoted to Brigadier General.

On December 24, 1944, on his 30th bombing mission, General Castle was killed while leading an air division of B-17’s over Liege, Belgium. En route to the target, his plane lost an engine, forcing him to drop from the lead of the formation and his aircraft was then attacked by German fighters. Since he was flying over friendly troops on the ground, General Castle refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed. All of the crew, except General Castle and the pilot, were able to escape before the plane exploded.

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