Merced County Times Newspaper
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Castle Air Museum welcomes ‘Bunny’ fighter jet


There’s a new military fighter jet in town.

Castle Air Museum’s newest addition to their collection is the famous F-4 Phantom II “Bunny” — an aircraft with a rich history of cultural and military significance. It arrived at Castle Air Museum on July 27, after a long road journey from Arizona.

Museum Executive Director Joe Pruzzo first saw the F-4 Phantom II “Bunny” aircraft during a visit to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 2016. The base, commonly known as the “boneyard,” is located outside Tucson, Arizona. One can find thousands of aircraft stored around the 2,500 acres of ground at the base, and it was the source for five of the aircraft in Castle Air Museum’s current collection. The F-4 had been sitting there since 1986.

“It was part of the Pacific Missile Test Squadron,” said Pruzzo. “This was the Commander’s airplane. All of the ordinance was tested by that squadron at Naval Air Station Point Mugu.”

An F-4 itself is not a rare type, but this specific plane is one of a kind. It is the only remaining plane with a controversial design painted on the tail, all of its counterparts having been scrapped for parts.

“One of its claims to fame is it exudes a symbol of American pop culture,” said Pruzzo. The symbol in question is that of the Playboy Bunny, which appears in white paint on a black background on the tail of the aircraft. “The Navy almost got sued because they used it without asking.”

The conflict between the Navy and Hugh Hefner was ultimately resolved, and after the Navy discontinued use of this plane it remained at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base until its adoption by Castle Air Museum. Pruzzo recognized it would be a valuable addition to the museum’s collection, but it took seven years to finally see it become a reality.

Obtaining an aircraft is not a simple task. While all the aircraft are on loan from the military, the museum still faces a high financial burden. Castle Air Museum was responsible for paying for transport of the aircraft. They were also responsible for funding the plane’s demilitarization, a process in which the offensive capabilities and dangerous mechanisms are removed, which is one of the conditions of military loan. In the end, the total cost of getting the plane to Castle was upwards of $144,000.

Demilitarizing the plane also leaves the plane flightless, so transportation has to be done by ground, a long and tedious process that requires the cooperation of multiple state agencies and careful route planning to account for the over 27 foot width of the aircraft.

The high expense of obtaining aircraft like the F-4 is paid exclusively with donations. Castle Air Museum is a non-profit that remains in operation thanks to the generosity of businesses and individuals alike. While they do receive larger sums from some area businesses, Pruzzo says every donation adds up, and gives credit to donors who keep the museum running.
“They have an affinity to see these things preserved, and not become pots and pans,” said Pruzzo. “If they become pots and pans, there’s no story left. They become pictures in a book.”

The F-4 may have reached its final destination, but there is still work to be done. Over the next year, Castle will work on restoring and reassembling the plane, and establishing a pad for it to be displayed on for visitors. It promises to be worth the wait, with an interior that includes two intact cockpits, and a tail design that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

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