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Volunteers work to restore aircraft at Castle


Castle Air Museum volunteers Dave Rodrigues and Tim Witherow restore a RA-3B Skywarrior aircraft.

POSTED February 17, 2012 10:54 p.m.

Visitors may be drawn to Atwater's Castle Air Museum by the rare aircraft on display, from a stealthy SR-71 Blackbird to the massive Boeing B-52D Stratofortress.
But without context those aircraft are just planes, an abstract remnant of history.
It's telling the story of those planes and artifacts, giving attendees a personal connection to what history's soldiers and airmen saw and felt, that drives Castle Air Museum, said Curator Tony Rocha.
"We believe in keeping the history of Castle alive," Rocha said. "I think keeping it personal is what's important."
It's little things like an exhibit dedicated to the 1956 film "Bombers B-52," starring Natalie Wood and Karl Malden - which was filmed on the old Castle Air Force Base. It's a picture of a local man wearing a World War I U.S. Army uniform - right next to the uniform on display. It's stories told of pilots and tail-gunners forced to dive into icy ocean waters to abandon downed aircraft.
And it's even a picture of an old B-52 christened "The City of Turlock."
Castle Air Museum and its volunteers put in the hard work to preserve that history, Rocha said, even as the U.S. military scraps "outdated" aircraft and tears down historical buildings. Even the museum's exhibit hall itself - the former barracks - preserves a bit of Castle Air Force Base's history simply by existing.
The museum's newest acquisitions - a North American RA-5C Vigilante and a Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior - will continue that legacy once they go on display. But first, both are in need of significant restoration work.

Restoration a difficult task
RA-3B Skywarriors aren't designed to have removable wings - an essential for transportation, as retired aircraft are seldom sky-worthy.
That meant volunteer Doug Allen had to drill out more than 1,400 bolts over a 10-month span to remove those wings. And Allen would commute over 100 miles from his Yucaipa home to China Lake each day to do that work all by himself.
Now, Castle Air Museum volunteers are left facing the enormous task of reassembling the aircraft before the RA-3B can go on display.
"We're talking 10,000 man hours here, just to put this back together," said Dave Price, restoration manager. "It's like putting a 4,000 piece puzzle together without a picture."
That can be an expensive task, but donations - including that of Jameson Hauling of Turlock, which transported the plane from China Lake - make it possible.
And a horde of volunteers, many of them retired Air Force and Navy aircraft mechanics, are more than willing to put in the work. Some of those volunteers even flew on a RA-3B, and are eager to see it complete.
Once finished, Castle's RA-3B will be the only plane of its kind on display in a museum.
"I built model airplanes when I was a kid, and now, this is the real thing," Price said. "It's a labor of love."
Alongside the Skywarrior crews work on restoring the Vigilante, a plane which first entered service in 1961 as a bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons at supersonic speeds. But when the aircraft was a less effective bomber than expected, most models - like Castle's - were converted to recon duty for the Vietnam War. Only about 10 are on display today, despite the aircraft's historical significance.
It was a Vigilante that first photographed the infamous Hanoi Hilton Vietnamese prison. Castle's example was the last Vigilante to land on the U.S.S. Ranger in August of 1974.
Since then, what is now Castle's Vigilante sat in the elements at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, in the Mojave Desert. From patching rusted panels to repairing the cockpit and repainting the exterior, the Vigilante too is in need of significant restoration.
But through all the work, the four names on the aircraft - the last crew to fly that Vigilante - will remain on the plane as a lasting testament to history.
And preserving that history is exactly the kind of thing the Castle Air Museum is all about, according to Castle Air Museum CEO Joe Pruzzo.
"When you can come out and see it in person, it puts a whole new spin on things," Pruzzo said.


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