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Castle ready to swing its cockpits wide open

For those who have wondered what the inside of a KC97 air tanker is like or want to feel what the pilots of those vintage planes experienced, the Castle Air Museum's Open Cockpit Day later this month should more than scratch that itch.

The museum's fall open house will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 20 at the museum at 5050 Santa Fe Drive in Atwater. The museum's executive director, Joe Pruzzo, hopes that 1,500 people will take part in the day's varied list of activities and that the event will raise about $10,000 to help with general expenses.

A new roof is needed for the museum's cafe, gift shop and dining room, Pruzzo explained, and these projects are scheduled to get under way early this month. Somewhere between 75 and 90 volunteers are scheduled to help out at the open cockpit day, rescheduled from Sept. 22 due to rain.

"There's a lot to see out here and we hope for good weather," Caroline Venable, secretary to the museum's board of directors, said. She expects to be plenty busy that day and said visitors can check out the 49 planes and about two dozen antique cars on display, the children's events and the helicopter rides.

For some folks, getting to Castle might entail flying here. Pruzzo expects anywhere from 12 to 20 pilots to fly in from across California for the open cockpit day. Gemini Flight Support will provide a courtesy bus to get the pilots from the runway of the former Castle Air Force Base to the museum grounds.

Boarding ladders will be available for some aviation buffs to gaze into the cockpits of the smaller vintage military aircraft.

The bigger planes, like the B52, RB36, Vulcan bomber and KC97 and KC135 refueling tankers, will be open for up-close inspection.

"The museum is world-renowned and since its beginnings in 1979 has been recognized for the wonderful collection of restored military aircraft. The open cockpit day is family-oriented as well as an educational experience. This is a fun day for the whole community and one which is very important to the museum," Pruzzo said.

Former SR-71 pilots will be available for discussions, and many volunteers can brief visitors about these airplanes that are part of their history as well as that of our country's history, Pruzzo said.

There's a good chance some of the museum's docents may have flown some of the planes years ago or worked on them when they were in service and are delighted to answer questions, he added.

The Merced Police Department and California Highway Patrol will have displays on the grounds, along with the National Association of Uniformed Services, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups. Vintage fire engines and early Jeeps also will be displayed.

Admission prices are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and youths 12 to 17 years of age; $6 for children 6 to 11 years of age, with children 5 and under free. Those in the active military also get in free.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209-385-2485 or