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Air museum welcomes explosive new exhibit

Air museum welcomes explosive new exhibit

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POSTED July 2, 2010 10:39 p.m.

While most Americans are content to celebrate the “bombs bursting in air” portion of the Fourth of July holiday with a few fireworks, Atwater’s Castle Air Museum is celebrating Independence Day with a much larger bomb.

On Tuesday, Castle Air Museum received a Mark 17 thermonuclear weapon casing, the 41,000-pound shell of one of the largest hydrogen bombs ever produced.

“We're thrilled to have it, it's a huge – quite literally – Cold War artifact,” Castle Air Museum Director Joe Pruzzo said.

The 25-foot long, six-foot wide Mark 17 bombs once carried nuclear weaponry capable of a 15-megaton explosion. That’s 1,000 times more powerful than the Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or roughly the same force as 15 180-foot long freight trains crashing into a single point.

The Mark 17 was the first mass-produced hydrogen bomb in the United States and the “big stick” of America’s Cold War deterrence policy, a crucial piece of military history although one was never dropped in anger.

The shell now on display at Castle Air Museum never carried a nuclear payload, and was produced expressly for training purposes. But even so, the massive piece of ordinance strikes an imposing visage, especially as displayed next to one of four remaining Convair B-36 "Peacemakers," the largest combat aircraft ever built and the only plane capable of carrying the massive Mark 17.

“You've got basically one of the largest nuclear weapons displayed next to the largest bomber ever built,” Pruzzo said.

The Mark 17 is the highlight of a nuclear bomb casing collection begun last year at Castle Air Museum. The museum now has five such shells, the heart of a Cold War munitions exhibit.

According to Pruzzo, visitors have long wanted to see the sort of weaponry carried by the myriad aircraft on display, and now, after years of work, they have the chance to do so. Locating a Mark 17 bomb casing took more than 15 years of work by museum staff and volunteers.

It was only three or four years ago that museum staff were able to locate the weapon, Pruzzo said, sitting in storage at Edwards Air Force Base. Only four or five such bomb shapes are left in the United States, none on this side of the country.

“This is the only one you'll see probably in the western region of the United States,” Pruzzo said.

For Turlocker and Castle Air Museum supporter Ed Wheeler, the delivery of a Mark 17 shape is the culmination of years of hard work.

It was Wheeler, a former pilot who once flew B-36 and dropped Mark 17s in training, who lobbied hard for the Mark 17 to go on display. He gathered donations, gained the assistance of Turlock’s Jameson Trucking in transporting the shape, and booked the crane required to lift the massive bomb into place.

Wheeler said he wanted the Mark 17 on display to share a piece of aviation history with visitors – and a piece of his own, sometimes terrifying experience with the nuclear bomb.

“There's an old expression in the flying game: hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer panic,” Wheeler said.

As soon as the massive bomb dropped from the bay of his B-36, the sheer loss of weight caused the plane to instantly climb 5,000 - 7,000 feet higher into the air. And, given the amazing destructive force of the bomb, a parachute was required to slow the Mark 17’s decent long enough to give the plane a chance to get away.

“It had impressed me when I was flying the airplane and I thought it would make a very good display alongside the B-36,” Wheeler said.

The Mark 17 is now on display at Castle Air Museum, 5050 Santa Fe Dr., Atwater. The museum is open from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. daily during the summer. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for youth or seniors, and free for children 5 and under or active duty military personnel.

To donate to the Mark 17 exhibit at Castle Air Museum, mail a check to Castle Air Museum Foundation, 5050 Santa Fe Dr., Atwater, CA 95301, with “Bomb fund” written in the for line.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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