Castle Air Museum goes in heavy with huge bombers, cargo planes

From rare Cold War jets to iconic WWII bombers, the Castle Air Museum has an incredible collection of planes often too large to fit in other museums. Here's a close look at these huge aircraft.

Geoffrey Morrison
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
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Castle Air Museum

Located in central California, the Castle Air Museum has an excellent mix of classic fighters and rarely seen big bombers.

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One of the stars of Castle's collection is right as you enter, a B-17. This one, built in 1944, was used as a training aircraft. It wears the livery of a B-17 shot down over the North Sea. 

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Local Liberator

Castle takes full advantage of the beautiful California weather and expansive outdoor real estate, featuring many big aircraft rarely found at other museums. This B-24 Liberator was flown by the 93rd Bomb Group, which is the predecessor of 93rd Bomb Wing that was stationed at Castle Air Force Base.

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Sky freighter

One of the bigger aircraft at the museum, the Boeing KC-97 Stratofreighter, the tanker version of the C-97. Note the outboard pods under the wing. This is one of the few aircraft that has both propellers (4) and jets (2). The jets were only used for short periods to make refueling easier with faster aircraft.

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Ten times as many KC-97s were built compared to the cargo-only C-97. 

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V for Vulcan

An RAF Avro Vulcan, rather far from home. It's one of only a handful outside the UK. 

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Delta wing

I got to check out the cockpit and interior of one of these during my tour of the North East Land Sea and Air Museum.

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Douglas Dragon

Douglas redesigned and improved their B-18 (there's one of those here, too), to become the far superior B-23 like what you see here. Only 38 were built, however, as it was still outclassed by the B-25 and B-26. 

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Rare for an aircraft of this era at a museum, this B-29 example flew over 50 combat missions in Korea.

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Donor parts

Used for target practice after retirement, the restoration process used many parts from other B-29s to complete this one.

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Lazy Daisy Mae

This B-25, "Lazy Daisy Mae," has had an interesting life. It was used as an air tanker for a while, and even was used by Texas Instruments to test IR and radar gear.

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Mid-century Tornado

This is my new-to-me favorite. I love early SAC-era aircraft, and only three of these B-45 Tornados survive. This is the only one on the west coast. 

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Developed from the B-29, the B-50 had more powerful engines, a bigger tail and a stronger overall structure. There are only five examples left, of 370 produced. This example was the last flown.

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Bolo bird

The B-18 Bolo was a pre- and early-WWII bomber, and was quickly outclassed by newer designs. This example was used as a firebomber after the war.

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Here's a rare one, a Canadian-built Cold War-era interceptor, the Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck. Few of these are on display outside of Canada.

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Faster than a 900 Turbo

I love the look of these delta-winged Saab J35s. Designed in the '50s, they look far more modern than that.

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In need of some hustle

The museum is currently restoring a B-58 Hustler. It's one of eight still in existence. Another example is at the huge Pima Air and Space Museum, which we've also toured.

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The twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook, still one of the fastest helicopters in military service. 

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2 rotor*2

I love oddball aircraft, and this Kaman HH-43B Huskie is certainly one of those. And if you think side-by-side rotors are weird, the founder of this company also founded a famous guitar company

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This might be the only surviving C-46 with combat jump history, having flown in Operation Varsity

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Big 52

Now here's an aircraft that's hard to fit in most museums: a B-52.

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Old bird

Built in the '50s and early '60s, the US Air Force still flies the H variant. This is the earlier D variant.

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Nothing but a...

Under the wing of the B-52 is a AGM-28 Hound Dog, an early turbo-jet-powered cruise missile.

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You can't go inside the B-52 that's on display. However, in one of the museum's buildings is a separate B-52 cockpit.

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Vietnam variant

The D variant was the most common model used in the Vietnam War.

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Wisely, there's a bench under the huge wing. This part of California is hot for most of the year.

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B-52s flown in Vietnam were often painted these colors, black belly and all.

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Another early SAC aircraft, the B-47. It never saw combat as a bomber, but many were converted for testing and reconnaissance. It was replaced in its bomber role by the much larger B-52.

This example was the last B-47 to fly.

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Back to the 80s

That's a swept-wing F-84 Thunderstreak on the left, then the straight-winged version, the F-84 Thunderjet

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Speaking of straight-winged jet fighters, here's the F-89 Scorpion and its huge wing pods, which served throughout the '50s and '60s.

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KC and the sunshine tanker

The KC-135 Stratotanker was developed from the same basic design that produced the Boeing 707. 

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Fill 'er up

Fixed-wing Air Force aircraft typically use this, called a flying boom. The "male" end is on the tanker, and the "female" end is on the aircraft. Navy and Marine aircraft typically have the opposite, called probe-and-drogue

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Flying gas station

The KC-135 was the Air Force's first jet-powered tanker, and replaced the KC-97 you saw earlier in this tour. The newest was built in the '60s, and are only now just starting to be replaced.

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The MiG-21 first flew in the '50s, was produced into the '80s, and is still flown by many air forces around the world.

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Sweep the wing

The F-111 Aardvark was the first production aircraft with variable-sweep wings. Today the roles filled by the F-111 are split between the F-15E and the B-1.

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Fast Voodoo

The F-101 Voodoo was extremely fast for its day, and a decent aircraft, but not as influential as the aircraft that would largely replace it, the F-4.

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British B

License-built by Martin in the US, the B-57 Canberra was originally designed by English Electric. 

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Young Tomcat

Probably the most iconic fighter aircraft of the late 20th century, the F-14 Tomcat. This one is fairly young, having been delivered to the Navy in 1992. 

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One word of advice if you visit the Castle Air Museum, bring a hat or an umbrella. The sun is relentless.

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Thunder and the albatross

The big and fast F-105 Thunderchief, with the far, far slower HU-16 Albatross flying boat in the background.

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The delta-winged F-106 Delta Dart. Note the area-ruled indented waist.

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The C-119 Flying Boxcar and its rare twin-boom design first flew after WWII, and some were still flying into the '90s. This example spent time as a water bomber.

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The A-3 Skywarrior is one of the heaviest aircraft ever to fly off US carriers, and in various roles, one of the longest-serving. This one is the RA-3B reconnaissance variant, and helped in the development of the Patriot missile.

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Sleek design

Though it looks newer, the A-5 Vigilante dates from the late '50s. This example, the RA-5C reconnaissance variant (that seems to be a trend here), flew off the USS Forrestal, Enterprise and Ranger.

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Sub tracker

A Grumman S-2 Tracker. Introduced in the mid-'50s, some are still in active service in Argentina and Brazil. 

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The iconic duo of an F-15 and F-16.

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Big bird

And this is, in my opinion, the star of the Castle Air Museum's collection, a B-36, looking as absolutely massive as it is, especially compared to the tiny F-16.

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Wings for days

This example was a RB-36, aka the reconnaissance variant, which had additional fuel capacity.

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Burnin' and turnin'

Despite this museum having two aircraft powered by both propellers and jets, that's a rarity. Also rare, how the B-36's propellers faced backward, in a pusher configuration. 

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Big bay

The B-36 could carry a payload of up to 86,000 pounds, or 39,000 kg.

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Tunnel in the sky

The cabin was pressurized, and to get from the front of the plane to the back, where there were bunks and the rear turret, you had to go through this narrow tunnel, which had a wheeled cart inside.

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The B-36 came from an era where intercepting aircraft were still a threat, and as such had six remote-controlled turrets plus one in the nose and this one in the tail.

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The B-36 has the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft.   

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One of four

Only four complete B-36s remain, of which this is the only RB variant. 

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Air Force One

Most weekends the museum's Air Force One VC-9 is open for tours. It carried multiple presidents and vice presidents.

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Fastest of the fast

And what a way to end, with the incredible (still, 50+ years since its first flight), SR-71 Blackbird.

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Flight time

This example flew more missions than any other SR-71, including over Vietnam and Libya. 

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Worth the trip

If you're like me and you like big bombers and early SAC-era aircraft, Castle Air Museum is excellent. It's a bit of a hike to get to, about 2 hours from San Francisco or Sacramento, but as one of the few places in the world to see some of these aircraft, it's a fun diversion if you're on your way to or from Los Angeles. Especially if you time it during one of their open cockpit days.

For more info about these planes and the museum, check out Castles in the clouds: Big bombers and fast fighters at the Castle Air Museum

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