California Flying

Two miles of runway, one great museum

March 1, 2001

Have you ever heard a pilot embellish a hangar-flying story? Of course, we all have. Have you ever heard a tale revolving around a greaser landing on a 12,000-foot runway? Probably not; pilots who deign to enlighten others about their piloting prowess seem to favor emphasizing their short-field skills. One way to put these experts to the test would be to challenge them to a spot-landing contest on the runway of your choice. There's a runway just north of Merced that is so big it initially boggles the mind, and if you've practiced before the contest starts, the odds will definitely be in your favor.

Castle Airport, the former Castle Air Force Base, is the site of the Castle Air Museum, home to more than 45 beautifully restored and displayed military airplanes. In addition to many well-known airplanes, rare birds such as the Douglas B–18 Bolo are on display. Castle is also home to Aviation Challenge California, a residential educational program that uses an aviation and space-based curriculum to illustrate and reinforce math and science skills for youngsters from 7 to 18 years of age.

Big runway

When first landing at an airport with a runway that's four or five times larger than we're used to, most pilots are surprised to find that their initial approaches and landings are rather sloppy. Perhaps the visual sense of proportion catches us off guard to the point that our normal landing procedures are put aside, or perhaps we just relax a little too much. Whatever the reason, changes in size and perspective often reveal the weaknesses of a pilot's approach procedures. Many general aviation pilots tend to shy away from mixing it up with the heavies; therefore, they rarely get the chance to shoot a few landings on a really large runway. Fortunately there is a monster of a runway at uncontrolled Castle Airport that awaits all pilots who desire the opportunity to fly a self-check on their landing procedures. If you don't pick a landing spot to aim for, you'll probably end up 4,000 feet down the runway.

Castle Airport is located seven miles northwest of the Merced airport, and 65 miles east of San Jose. Since Castle Airport is equipped with a variety of instrument approaches (ILS/DME, VOR/DME, and GPS), pilots in the vicinity should contact or monitor Stockton Approach on 120.95 MHz to keep track of local traffic. The Castle Airport CTAF is 123.0 MHz.

The runway is not actually 12,000 feet long; it's really only 11,802 feet, but it makes up for the last 200 feet by being 300 feet wide. After shooting some practice instrument approaches, or refining your large-runway landing technique, taxi over to the transient parking area at the base of the unmanned control tower. Inside the terminal, you'll find the helpful staff of the Gemini Flight Center. They can assist visitors by arranging for fuel (Jet-A or 100LL), a rental car, or local accommodations, if desired. And they will be happy to provide rides to and from the Castle Air Museum (CAM).

Castle Air Museum

Once on the museum grounds, you can enjoy a meal at the Flight of Fancy Café, buy a gift in the museum gift shop, or immediately start walking among the amazing display of Air Force and Army Air Corps airplanes. Inexpensive audiotape "tour guides" can be rented in the gift shop.

Castle Air Museum's goal is to preserve our military aviation heritage for future generations. The museum is the official repository for the 94th Bomb Group and a partner in the Air Force's Heritage Program.

Trainers such as the North American AT-6 Texan, the Vultee BT–13 Valiant, the Beech YT–34 Mentor, and the Lockheed T–33 Shooting Star sit proudly near the museum's Lockheed SR–71 Blackbird.

The only remaining reconnaissance version of the Air Force's largest piston-powered intercontinental bomber, the Consolidated-Vultee RB–36H Peacemaker, is featured along with other bombers such as the Boeing B–17G Flying Fortress, B–29 Superfortress, B–47 Stratojet, and the B–52D Stratofortress. The rapid improvements made in airplane design, manufacturing, and performance can be easily seen while walking among the nicely restored and well-maintained airplanes in this fine collection.

Have you ever seen a Douglas B–18 Bolo bomber? The one at CAM is the only remaining example. Most airplane aficionados know that the North American B–25J is the Mitchell; what's the name of the Douglas B-23? It's the Dragon, obsolete before its first flight, and CAM has a beautifully restored example.

Sunday, May 27, is the museum's fifth annual "open cockpit" day, when visitors are invited to step inside the ropes and get close to the airplanes. CAM is a nonprofit organization and does charge admission. Group tours are available by calling 209/723-2178 or faxing 209/723-0323. The Flight of Fancy restaurant helps support the operation and, like the museum, is open every day of the year except for Christmas, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Easter.

Aviation Challenge

If you're a parent who's looking for a chance to spend a unique three-day weekend with your 7- to 11-year-old child, or you want to stimulate your child's interest in math and science, then you may be interested in checking out the programs that are available at the Aviation Challenge facility on the Castle Airport.

Aviation Challenge has an overall goal of stimulating young people to explore math and science by using interactive programs utilizing aviation and space applications. The Aviation Challenge program is a weeklong residential program open to young people ages 9 to 18. The Mach I, II, and III programs help youngsters gain confidence while learning leadership and teamwork skills through team activities such as flight planning, wilderness survival, and group competitions.

Three-day-weekend pilot/copilot programs are available for parents with 7- to 11-year-olds. You and your child will spend three days together as teammates, flying a side-by-side simulator, learning land and water survival techniques, and putting together a storehouse of memories.

For more information on the Aviation Challenge or pilot/copilot programs, call Aviation Challenge California at 209/726-0190; fax 209/726-0216; or visit the Web site (

Castle Airport has the facilities to sharpen your flying technique, illustrate Air Force history, and teach your children more about math and science. What else would you expect when landing at (a) Castle?

Links to additional information about Castle Airport, Castle Air Museum, and Aviation Challenge may be found on AOPA Online ( E-mail the author at [email protected].