Old skywarrior finds new life at Castle Air Museum

05/08/2013 5:41 PM

05/09/2013 12:01 AM

A Navy aircraft nicknamed "The Whale" because of its enormous size settled into its new home Wednesday at Castle Air Museum.

About a dozen volunteers followed the plane -- a Douglas RA-3B Skywarrior -- from the restoration hangar at Castle Airport to the nearby museum, clearing branches and other obstacles as the 82,000-pound plane was moved through the museum's back gates.

Joe Pruzzo, chief executive officer of the Castle Air Museum Foundation, said the Skywarrior is the 56th plane to be displayed at the museum.

About 15 to 20 volunteers worked to restore the plane, Pruzzo said. Many of the volunteers are retired military personnel and have a wide array of mechanical expertise.

"They do it out of a love for passing along the history of it," Pruzzo said.

Designed to combat any Soviet threat, the war bird had the ability to take off from aircraft carriers and strike with nuclear weapons. They stayed in use until 1991.

Navy veteran Charles Stice is one of the volunteers who helped restore the Skywarrior.

While serving in the Navy, he flew in a bomber version of the Skywarrior. The plane did pose some challenges to the flight crew because of its size, and it posed challenges to the restoration crew for the same reason.

The plane was hauled up from an aircraft storage facility in the city of Mojave in late 2010. The wings were removed so the aircraft could be transported on trucks. They were reassembled at Castle, Stice said.

John Attanasio, a Navy veteran from New Jersey, was at Wednesday's event. As a former aviation electronics technician, he's had the opportunity to work on Skywarriors and see them in action.

"This was a beast to handle on the (carrier) flight deck," he said.

Attanasio said he's glad the retired plane will be displayed so museum visitors can learn about its "important" contribution to the U.S. military.

The Skywarrior at Castle was converted into a reconnaissance plane, and is the only reconnaissance model in existence, Pruzzo said. It was used during scouting missions in Vietnam and often photographed the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- a critical supply route during the Vietnam War.

Aside from reconnaissance, Skywarriors have been modified to refuel other planes or take part in electronic warfare.

Castle Air Museum's Skywarrior is on long-term loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

John Sundgren, chairman of the Castle Air Museum Foundation board of directors, said lots of volunteer work went into restoring the plane.

"It just demonstrates the capabilities that our volunteers have to rescue an airplane that was in danger of being scrapped and bring it back to life," Sundgren said.

It's also a tribute to the men who served on the aircraft, said Larry Morelock, vice chairman of the foundation's board of directors.

"I look at these as the tools of what we used, but the people behind them are the story, of course," Morelock said. "It's all about their stories -- the people."

The plane will be dedicated May 26 during the museum's Open Cockpit Day, where several of the planes' interiors will be on public display.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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