Close to 300 people welcomed the Castle Air Museum’s newest airplane, a Douglas VC-9 that flew presidents, vice presidents and first ladies for 30 years, as it touched down at Castle Airport early Wednesday afternoon.
The air museum’s chief executive officer, Joe Pruzzo, spoke just after the gleaming blue, white and chrome-adorned plane circled the runway then landed in front of the crowd just after 1 p.m.
“This is a great day, not only for the air museum but also for Merced, Atwater, Merced County and the state of California,” Pruzzo said. Arrival of the plane triggers a drive to raise about $10 million to construct a building to house about two dozen of the museum’s vintage military aircraft.
Politicians, Yosemite High School students, Castle Air Museum supporters and retired military personnel clapped and cheered as the jetliner landed and rolled slowly toward the reception area. It was open for tours through midafternoon.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton rode in the plane, along with vice presidents Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle, Al Gore and Dick Cheney. Former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush also were prominent passengers.
Ken Rice of Tucson, Ariz., flew the plane and its two identical sisters for eight years. He said the plane flew into Moscow two or three times, all over North and South America and to Havana, Cuba.
Rice recalled a time when he was transporting Quayle. As he was shutting the plane’s power down after landing, a voice called to him from a dark restroom. It was Quayle, whom the Secret Service code-named “Score Card” and had been frantically searching for until his whereabouts became known.
Gary Erickson of Oxnard, with the Erickson Group, will be heading up a fundraising drive for the museum’s new 100,000-square-foot structure, to be named the Presidential Pavilion. They hope to have about half of the money raised before ground is broken.
“Can you imagine how many museums wanted this plane?” Erickson said.
He said a thousand people a day visit the retired Air Force One on display at the Reagan presidential library in Southern California, and he is sure the new plane will increase the museum’s patronage.
Pruzzo said the General Services Administration contacted him in early June, wondering if the museum was interested in the plane. He said GSA officials believed it belonged at the Castle Air Museum and local backers waited nervously until the museum’s letter of intent was accepted.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, flew in the plane with first lady Rosalynn Carter. He wrote a letter to the GSA supporting the plane’s donation to the Castle Air Museum, saying it would be the museum’s most rare and significantly historic aircraft.
John Sungren, chairman of the board for Castle Air Museum, said being selected to receive the plane was a milestone.
“I accept this aircraft for safekeeping. ... This artifact will need an indoor venue,” Sungren said.
Mark Hendrickson, director of the county’s Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development Department, said residents need to view the air museum as an economic development opportunity, especially when a plane of this stature is added to the collection.
The plane was in service at the 89th Airlift Wing from February 1975 to September 2005, when it was reassigned to the Air Force Reserve Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.