Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle
Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor
Castle Air Force Base was named for Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle, whose craft suffered a Nazi attack over Belgium. He remained alone at the controls of a flaming B-17 in order to enable his crew to escape. (Photo courtesy Aerospace Museum of California, McClellan, CA)
The airfield which would become Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, California, was opened on September 29, 1941 as the Army Air Corps Basic Flying School. Its mission was as a pilot and aircrew training facility operated by the United States Army Air Force. In 1943 it was renamed Merced Army Airfield and kept that name until it was taken over by the Strategic Air Command (SAC).
The facility was renamed Castle Air Force Base on January 13, 1948 as part of the establishment of the United States Air Force as a separate military service.
Castle is named for Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle, who died on Dec. 24, 1944 flying his 30th bombing mission. He died leading an armada of 2000 B-17s on a strike against German airfields. On the way to the target, an engine failure over Liege, Belgium caused his bomber to fall behind, where it was attacked by Germans and caught fire. He ordered his men to bail out, but stayed alone at the controls of the flaming Flying Fortress until it crashed. The entire crew, except Gen. Castle and one airman killed before
the bailout order, survived. Gen. Castle received a Medal of Honor posthumously for his bravery.
Castle became home to the 93rd Bombardment Wing in 1947. Aircraft stationed at Castle included B-29, B-17 and C-54 aircraft, with B-50 bombers arriving in 1949. In 1954, B-47 bombers arrived.
Airmen at Castle were entrusted to train SAC crews for new jet aircraft. On June 29, 1955, Castle received the Air Force's first B-52. These heavy bombers can hold the equivalent of three railroad cars' worth of fuel. The first Air Force KC-135 jet tanker arrived May 18, 1957. These high-speed, high-altitude tankers were equipped with a telescoping flying boom to refuel B-52s nine miles above the earth.
The first non-stop jet flight around the world ("Operation Power Flight") was executed by three B-52 crews from the 93rd Bombardment Wing at Castle in 1957. They took off from Castle on January 16 at 1 p.m. and landed at 10:19 p.m. January 18 at March Air Force Base in Riverside, having been diverted from landing at Castle due to fog. They traveled 24,325 miles.
On August 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy visited Castle Air Force Base during a whirlwind tour of massive western water projects that took him to Pierre, South Dakota to dedicate the Missouri River hydroelectric Oahe Reservoir Dam; to Pueblo, Colorado to authorize a water diversion and delivery project including five dams; and then to Los Banos, California, to break ground for the $500 million San Luis Dam. "What makes all this possible, this tremendous national development, of course, is in part the work of the men who are stationed at this Air Force Base," President Kennedy said. He thanked airmen serving there, as well as troops around the world, for protecting national security so the United States could concentrate on developing infrastructure to capitalize on natural resources.
In 1970, the 93rd Bomb Wing took first place in the annual SAC Bombing Competition.
Castle was selected for closure under the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990 during Round II Base Closure Commission deliberations (BRAC 91). The last of the B-52s left the base in 1994, followed by the departure of the last of the KC-135s in early 1995. The base closed September 30, 1995.
The reuse and redevelopment of Castle was initially overseen by a Joint Powers Authority including representatives from the cities of Atwater and Merced as well as Merced County. This governing body, organized as soon as Castle was listed for closure, spent years laying the groundwork for transfer of the property as soon as the Air Force left. The CJPA also developed a comprehensive Airport Master Plan which has been accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration as a blueprint for future expansion. The City of Merced withdrew from the JPA in 1998 and the City of Atwater in 2000, when the JPA was dissolved and the County of Merced took sole control as the Local Redevelopment Authority.
All 2,777 acres of the former base were transferred by the Air Force, the majority to the County of Merced. A federal to federal transfer of 649 acres allowed construction of a federal penitentiary on an isolated part of the former base. Another 186 acres were sold.
The Air Force has cleaned up contaminated soil and groundwater in tandem with development of the property by the County of Merced.
First Lady Michelle Obama landed at Castle when she traveled to address the first graduating class of UC Merced in 2009. UC Merced opened in September 2005 as the 10th campus in the UC system. The university has an administrative building at Castle.