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Over 70 historic military aircraft on display at Castle Air Museum | Bartell's Backroads

A former Army Air Corps flight school in Merced County is a magnet for military aircraft fans. Its massive collection includes a decommissioned Air Force One.

ATWATER, Calif. — The first thing you’ll notice when talking to Joe Pruzzo is his wealth of knowledge when it comes to military aircraft, and that’s what you’d expect when you’re talking to the executive director of an airplane museum.

“It’s the main attraction in Merced County,” said Pruzzo. “We draw in about 50,000 people a year.”

The Castle Air Museum in Atwater is home to one of the largest collections of military planes in California. When the Castle Army Air Force Base opened in 1941, it was a basic flight school. Pilots and crew members trained there during many military conflicts.

Over the years, old aircrafts were grounded and eventually a collection of the decommissioned planes were put on display. Castle Air Museum opened to the public in 1981. 

“What we do is save pieces of aviation history,” said Pruzzo.

Now, more than 70 planes are spread out over 25 acres, with the oldest being a 1938 Douglas B-18 Bolo. 

“It’s the only one you’ll see with the original nose gun turret,” said Pruzzo. 

Just a few rows down is the Convair B-36, which looks tiny next to the B-18. The military nicknamed the Convair B-36 “The Peacemaker” because it carried a 42,500-lb. nuclear bomb.

“It’s the largest nuke designed to be dropped from an airplane. At one time they had 200 of these in inventory,” said Pruzzo.

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If you feel the need for speed, you may recognize the F-14 Tom Cat from the movie Top Gun. Pruzzo says Tom Cruise did not fly in the one on display. 

At the south end of the museum, you'll find an actual Airforce One VC-9C, which was designed for the president.

“Two sitting presidents for sure, Regan and Clinton, used this aircraft,” said Pruzzo. 

The plane is equipped with all the luxuries and technology in use from 1975 to Sept. 2005, and you can sit in the president's seat if you want.

The museum collection is always growing. Some planes fly into the museum. Others come in multiple pieces and they’re re-assembled by engineering students from UC Merced and volunteers like Pat Patton, who take great pride in their work.

“This is a piece of history,” said Patton. “There were people before us who lost their lives. We are just here to preserve their history.”

History is only part of the experience at the Castle Air Museum. Many volunteers flew in or worked on these planes, and during a tour they will provide you with personal stories. The Castle Air Museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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