Castle AFB

I don’t know how to feel about the Air Force Museum at Castle. It’s probably the largest, most impressive collection of fighting aircraft on display anywhere outside of Dayton, stretching from bombers that pre-date the second world war all the way to an SR-71 – still the fastest plane ever built. But there’s something disconcerting about it.

I remember walking around the planes at Dayton, way back when. The planes were static, but alive, and poised for action. Under quartz halogens lighting the “active” hangar, you could tell that these planes were just resting. At any moment, someone could sound the alarm and the entire museum would leap into action. Crews would dash across the concrete, lights would flash, and fire would blaze from their bellies. Or so it seemed – the planes were alive.

At Castle, though, it was different. I couldn’t shake the image of Audubon birds, stuffed and mounted on wire, looking out at the world through glass eyes and taxidermist paint. These birds would never fly again. For the most part, there wasn’t even any pretense. They were kept to be effigies, three-dimensional representations of what had been, that children could point at while their parents thumbed through the visitors’ guide to ponder the differences between the Delta Dagger and Delta Dart.

Is this bad? I’m not entirely sure. The pacifist in me beams: “Remember – these are terrible weapons of destruction that have been rendered inert, unneeded. They’ve already been forgotten by this generation, and have been preserved only so our children will know that such things once existed.” The Orwellian-named “Peacemaker” – that cold-war behemoth out of the Gotham sky, with a black-and-white “Rascal” nuclear missile slung under its wing (“You just incinerated a city of 5 million people? Oh, you rascal, you!”).

But the aesthete can’t agree. I am a pilot, after all. These are creatures of the air: they may be designed for war, but the machines themselves are beautiful. They are technological wonders – the limits of man’s imagination and skill in lifting himself from the chains of gravity by dint of lift and thrust balanced against weight and drag. The realization of a dream older than words, able finally to carry us beyond our troglodyte origins into a place just a little below angels. From the leggy B-23 swaggering in its bell-bottom gear to the towering, majestic Vulcan. The scalpel-sharp F-104 – Mach 2 and straight up past the brink of space, on wings the size of a dinner table. Their forms reveal a necessary beauty in the physics of their design – they are a manifestation of desire, realized. And so I can’t help but feel a sadness in their condition: rusted and battered – never to fly again.

Even the Blackbird. Especially the Blackbird – whose kin are untouchable at 2500+mph on the upper edges of our atmosphere, still the fastest ride ever built. This one guards the roadside parking lot and competes poorly with the “Safeway Grand Opening!” banner slung up on a fence behind it. How many pilots did she carry over Siberia, Pyonyang, Tripoli, Havana? Looking down from 80,000 ft at the contrails, death rising from below…and falling short. Yet again. On the edge of space, a pilot’s hand patting the panel – “There’s a good girl. Now bring us on home, willya?” To this sad state.

Plenty to think about, indeed. But the day’s wearing short, and I’m due home by three. I walk the deserted half mile back from the museum to the airport, tracking a drainage ditch where egrets scout for a midafternoon snack. The field itself is surprisingly busy after the quiet desolation of the rest if Castle. Seminoles driven by clean-cut Asian boys in powder-blue buttondowns with two-stripe epaulets run laps around the pattern. Sierra Flight Academy is training the next generation of JAL captains.

They’re clearly working hard, but seem to be having fun. Heck – who wouldn’t be? Learning to fly? In California? It doesn’t get any better than this. I flash a toothy grin as I saddle up in the Debonair; I don’t fit in, not by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re all kindred spirits here on the ramp. They smile and wave back, then return to their post-flight debrief.

So I climb in, yell out “Clear prop!” and light her up. 56Y is a good plane – we’ve been through a bit together, and still enjoy a lazy afternoon over the hills. So off we go, loping homeward. Watch the January sun do its best to warm the brown earth below, watch smoke rings from the Southwest jet above.

Some day we’ll all be rusty and battered, a mere reminder of what we once were to those who loved us. But for now, at least, we can fly: lift and thrust against drag and gravity. And it’s a beautiful dance.

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