ATWATER — About 2,500 people came through the gates at Castle Air Museum on Sunday to peek inside vintage military aircraft, take helicopter rides and even build model planes at the 2013 Fall Open Cockpit Day.
Many people with children in tow came from throughout the region Merced, Madera, Modesto, even Mountain View to see the 30 aircraft with open cockpits, as well as the other 30 displayed at the museum.
For months, the Ratley family of Modesto had plans for a camping trip to Pinecrest, but that changed because of the smoke from the massive Rim fire burning nearby. They decided instead to check out the aircraft at Castle.
"My son (Colton) saw the helicopter and got so excited and said, 'Mom can we ride it?' " said Sara Ratley. "I always wanted to ride in a helicopter since I was a little girl, but I was always too chicken or it was too expensive, and I said I'm just gonna face my fear because my 4-year-old wants to do it.
"It's amazing what your kids inspire you to explore," said Ratley.
The visit to the museum was a first for Ratley, who admitted she's not a plane person.
"I'm amazed about the difference of design and all that goes into them, and the men and women who were brave enough to fly these things, especially during war time," she said.
Larry Morelock, 64, of Merced, a board member of the museum committee and a veteran KC-135 pilot, emphasized the mission of education by telling the story of the men and women behind the planes.
"I like to look at it saying there's something from everybody, from the people that thought up a particular aircraft, to designing it, to building it, to maintaining it, to flying it, and right up to restoring it, Morelock said.
He looks at each plane as a tool for telling a story. Morelock said those stories are especially important for young people to hear, because it teaches them about preserving "our history, and way of life and freedoms. That's our goal to keep doing that."
Brandon Stark, a UC Merced graduate student and lab manager, gave a look at the future of aircraft at his booth, displaying an array of small unmanned aerial vehicles.
"We develop and work on unmanned aerial systems for environmental and agricultural applications," Stark said. "We don't spy on people, we spy on cows, we spy on weeds, we spy on the rivers."
Joe Pruzzo, chief executive officer for the museum, spoke of all the volunteer hours and money it takes to keep the museum going.
"In the world of nonprofits it's tough sometimes, but we keep going ahead and we keep preserving these sentinels of our history," Pruzzo said.
The museum doesn't get any government funding, according to Pruzzo. All funding is derived from daily admissions, memberships, special event fund-raisers such as Sunday's Open Cockpit Day, and donations.
A car show will be held at the museum on Sept. 28, known as Super Saturday at Castle Air Museum. A fund-raising concert will be held at the Merced Theatre on Nov. 22, called "Hotel California: A Tribute to the Eagles."
For more, visit the museum website at www.castleairmuseum.org.