'Yosemite' leading hunt for new 'Castle' name

For more than 50 years, the now-decommissioned Castle Air Force Base has borne the name of a World War II pilot who gave his life to spare civilians.

The commercial airport that's there today has kept the honorific.

But that could soon change.

As Merced County continues its effort to redevelop the former base, county officials are considering a name change for Castle Airport.

They're hoping the move will help garner international recognition for Castle, which is scheduled to provide passenger flights by 2008.

For the past several months, Castle officials have been getting input from consultants and commercial airlines on how to better market the airport. It boasts, for example, the sixth-longest runway in California. "They all say the same thing," said John Fowler, who is overseeing the base's redevelopment. "We need a name that's recognizable throughout California and throughout the world."

Although a final decision has yet to be made, Castle officials are floating two ideas for the new name. And both involve the nearby national park: Central California Yosemite Airport and Merced County Yo- semite Airport.

"In Central California, there is only one internationally recognized destination, and that's Yosemite," Fowler said.

Under its current name, Fowler said, most people outside the Central Valley can't place Castle, or even Merced County, on a map. Several other nearby airports already are using Yosemite for its international resonance, including the Fresno Yosemite Airport, the Mariposa Yosemite Airport and the Mammoth Yosemite Airport.

Castle was named for Brig. Gen. Frederick W. Castle, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for bravery over Belgium in 1944. Under attack by German pilots, Castle chose to go down with his plane instead of bailing to safety, a decision that military officials said undoubtedly saved the lives of civilians below.

Castle officials say only the airport's name will change; the base, now known as the Castle Commerce Center, will retain the general's name, as will the site's air museum. And Castle officials say that regardless of what name is chosen, the general will remain linked to the airport.

Officially, the airport's title would be followed by "Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle Field."

Still, critics say a change to any name that doesn't begin with Castle is a slight to the base's heritage.

"It's been Castle for as long as I've been in this community," said County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. "I guess I'm not ready to let go of the old name. And when the name is that long, the Castle part will just get left off."

Jim Price, vice president of Gemini Flight Support, said any change will subject his company to substantial economic impacts. He said Gemini, which provides support services such as fuel and catering to planes flying into Castle, has spent a lot of time and money marketing itself under the Castle name.

"It's ludicrous to say a name change is going to bring more business," Price said. "For us, all this is going to do is confuse our customers and undo all the marketing efforts we've already made."

"The experts tell us that this the best way to go," said county spokesman Mark Hendrickson. "We want Castle to be successful. We want to create more jobs and opportunity, and that's what this boils down to."

Supervisor Mike Nelson, whose district includes Castle, said he supports calling the airport Central California Yosemite Airport. "I think we can change the name and still honor the base's heritage," he said

The Board of Supervisors, which will decide Castle's new name, was presented with the two suggestions Sept. 25, and is gathering input from the public and from businesses lo- cated at Castle. A decision is ex- pected in a few weeks.

Since 2000, the county has been working to redevelop the 1,900-acre former Air Force base. It's spent $17 million-plus to make it a com- mercially viable airport. Several cargo airlines now fly to and from Castle, as do local flight schools.

County officials say they expect to begin construction on a two-gate passenger terminal in the coming months. The airport has yet to contract with a passenger airline.