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Highly Anticipated Fighting Falcon Arrives at Air Museum

After years of waiting, the Castle Air Museum in Atwater received a "gem" of a plane on Monday to add to its collection of nearly 70 historical aircraft.

An F-16 Fighting Falcon that served with the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard out of Fresno arrived at the museum's restoration hangar after a journey from a military storage facility in Tucson, Ariz.

"It's been a long and winding road, but we're reaping the rewards today," said Joe Pruzzo, the museum CEO. "(The Fighting Falcon) joins a host of world-class aircraft — some of which only two or three are left in existence."

Pruzzo said the Fighting Falcon has strong ties to the Valley, not only for its time in the Air National Guard in Fresno, but also because of a businessman who logged nearly 50 hours in the plane.

One of the key boosters of the drive to bring the F-16 to Castle was retired Col. Larry McKoane, a former fighter wing commander with the 144th and now president of Clawson Honda in Fresno, Pruzzo said.

McKoane, who was with the Air National Guard from 1983 to 2014, in fact piloted the aircraft to Arizona in 1994 after it was decommissioned, Pruzzo said.

"It is definitely kind of surreal to see an airplane that you flew so long ago down in a museum," McKoane, 53, said. "It's not something I ever expected."

The 144th Fighter Wing's primary duty is to provide air defense along the West Coast and respond to state emergencies when summoned by the governor.

The 144th Fighter Wing used the F-16A from 1989 to 1994 before phasing to later models of the F-16. Ultimately, the 144th Fighter Wing transitioned in 2013 to the F-15 due to that jet's dual engines and radar.

The F-16 was a preferred aircraft for the U.S. military because of its maneuverability, low cost and high-performance weapons systems. The jet can reach speeds up to 1,500 mph, travel more than 2,000 miles, and carry two 2,000-pound bombs with additional weapons and fuel tanks.

The F-16 now at Castle is one of only a few of its kind in the state, though many, many more exist elsewhere, Pruzzo said.

The effort to bring the plane to Castle relied heavily on volunteer work. Jameson Harvesting Inc. out of Turlock volunteered the truck, trailer, and drive time to haul the plane from Arizona to California. The Air National Guard helped train volunteers at Castle on how to disassemble the aircraft for the journey and will return to help volunteers reassemble it. Next, anywhere from 25 to 30 volunteers will work on restoring the plane so that it's historically accurate.

One of those volunteers is Juan Hernandez, a UC Merced student majoring in mechanical engineering and president of a campus aeronautics club. Hernandez aired up the tires of the plane after it was lifted off the trailer and suspended in the air by a crane.

Last summer, Hernandez logged about 75 hours in the restoration hangar. He said he's worked on a little bit of everything at the hangar.

"We'll have the wings put on and have it looking as if it's ready to fly," Hernandez said about the Fighting Falcon.

Tony Rocha, who oversees the curation and historical accuracy of artifacts at the museum, said the Fighting Falcon is something the public will want to see.

"It's definitely an eye-catcher," Rocha said. "It's a sleek aircraft."

Researching the aircraft and ensuring the restoration is as accurate as possible is important, Rocha said.

The Fighting Falcon project is an addition to three other restoration projects underway, as well as general maintenance of other artifacts, Rocha said.

Restoration could take anywhere from nine months to a year, museum officials said, depending on the hours volunteers are able to commit.

The Castle Air Museum is the largest aviation museum from Los Angeles to Seattle and is located on the former Castle Air Force Base, which closed in 1995. The museum attracts up to 5,000 visitors from around the globe on its Open Cockpit Days.

Said Pruzzo: "Come out, and come be amazed."

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