The Castle Air Museum, located in Atwater at the former Air Force base of the same name, features aircraft from around the world. Visitors can see many pieces of aviation history up close.
Two examples of planes on display are a B-36 Peacemaker bomber and the "Spirit of Modesto," the passenger plane that made a forced landing in a Ceres orchard in 1978 and remained there for years after.
Built as an Army Air Corps training school prior to the United States' entry into World War II, the facility became Castle Air Force Base after the war. It was named in honor of Brigadier Gen. Frederick W. Castle, a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor. It served as a Strategic Air Command base during the Cold War before closing in 1995.
During the Cold War, one of the first long-range bombers was the mammoth B-36. With a 70-yard wingspan to carry its six piston engines and two jet engines, it was a massive plane.
As part of SAC, the Peacemaker carried the Mark 17 hydrogen bomb, one of which is on display next to the B-36 in Atwater. The B-36 was the only American bomber that could carry the 21-ton bomb. Once the plane was retired, the Mark 17 also was removed from service.
Before its retirement, the B-36 was given a premier role in the 1955 film "Strategic Air Command" starring Jimmy Stewart, in which the interior of the plane is shown, including the 80-foot tunnel crewmen had to traverse to get to the back section of the long plane.
The former "Spirit of Modesto" once was a passenger plane, though it is shown as a Coast Guard plane. The Convair-240 has been converted to one its previous configurations before it became the "Spirit of Modesto."
The interior of the plane, which took many years to restore from its rusted condition, features passenger seats along with a couch for high-ranking officers to relax on. The pilot's compartment is cramped and difficult to get into, and much of the original wiring and electronics of the "Spirit" were removed some years ago.
In spite of all the repair work, including a paint job reflecting its proper Coast Guard colors, the plane has a knock in its cargo bay that the wind stirs up. But because the bay has been sealed and is inaccessible, identifying the source of the noise is impossible.
Along with the B-36 and the "Spirit of Modesto," some of the other planes at Castle Air Museum include a B-29 Superfortress, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-47 Stratojet (which also appeared in "Strategic Air Command"), an SR-71 Blackbird, an F-86 Sabre and an Avro Vulcan.
The museum is well worth a visit, but aircraft aficionados should get an early start because of the many planes on display.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.