If the tight-lipped approach from those involved in President Barack Obama’s brief stop in Merced County is any sign, the commander-in-chief’s visit will be a brief but secure one.
Obama is set to touch down with family in tow Friday evening at the former Castle Air Force Base before heading to Yosemite National Park, which is celebrating the centennial of the parks service.
Officials told the Sun-Star they couldn’t say much about preparations and referred questions to the White House. Mark Hendrickson, director of the county’s Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development, said he could not discuss any part of the president’s arrival at the airport including whether any local elected officials will be on hand to greet him.
The president is on a whirlwind tour, visiting national parks sites in New Mexico and California.
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Merced Mayor Stan Thurston, co-owner of Gemini Flight Support at Castle, confirmed his business would be involved in the president’s visit but also said he’d been sworn to secrecy.
There already has been activity at Castle this week from jumbo jets delivering equipment and Marine One and Two, the presidential helicopters, said Joe Pruzzo, CEO of Castle Air Museum.
You’ll definitely see a secure perimeter around it. I would assume that Secret Service (would) have a perimeter around the airfield itself.
Joe Pruzzo, the CEO of the Castle Air Museum
He said Air Force One doesn’t go anywhere without an entourage and plenty of backup. “You’ll definitely see a secure perimeter around it,” he said. “I would assume that Secret Service (would) have a perimeter around the airfield itself.”
Pruzzo said a maintenance crew is always close by in case the equipment needs servicing and a backup plane accompanies Air Force One. Also typically in the entourage, he said, is a jet that can provide in-flight refueling.
The president’s plane likely will be connected to an external power source while it sits at Castle, Pruzzo said, in case Obama needs to leave in a hurry.
The pit stop at Castle is Obama’s second visit to Merced County. He visited a Los Banos farmer in 2014 as the state dealt with its historic drought.
Presidential visits to Merced County are rare, but a number of sitting presidents have at least passed through Merced en route to Yosemite.
The first sitting president to visit the park was Rutherford B. Hayes, according to Sarah Lim, the executive director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum. He reportedly took in the scenery in an open carriage in 1880, but it’s unclear if he visited Merced.
We’re excited about that because we think it’s important that he sees our national park here, because we obviously think it’s the best one.
Rich Gipson, the chairman of the Merced County Democratic Central Committee
The Yosemite Valley Railroad, which moved passengers from Merced to El Portal, came into play in 1905, upping the number of sitting or retired presidents to visit the park. Lim said President William Taft spoke in 1909 in the grassy area surrounding the historic Merced County Courthouse.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt also took the railroad to the home of Half Dome, but he never left his railway car in Merced. “FDR switched his train from the Southern Pacific to the Yosemite Valley Railroad when he was here in 1938,” Lim said. “He was in Merced for one hour, but he was taking a nap in his special train when they switched it. So he did not even meet anybody.”
The rail went out of style in the 1940s. President John F. Kennedy used the tarmac at Castle, then a bustling Air Force Base, to land in Merced County. He arrived to mark the groundbreaking of the San Luis Dam near Los Banos, but also made stops in Merced and Yosemite, according to the U.S. Air Force.
On the Fourth of July 1980, President Jimmy Carter visited Merced College while campaigning for re-election. Rich Gipson, the chairman of the Merced County Democratic Central Committee, said he recalls seeing Secret Service agents in plain view everywhere Carter went, which included a stop in Modesto.
Gipson, 70, was part of the receiving party for Carter, but said it’s unclear if there’s such a party for Obama’s short stint in Merced County before he bounces up to Yosemite.
“We’re excited about that because we think it’s important that he sees our national park here,” Gipson said, “because we obviously think it’s the best one.”