Tour service takes off at Atwater's Castle Airport

ATWATER — Castle Airport took the form of an international welcoming hub Wednesday as dozens of Germans were chartered to and from the site by an aviation tour company that’s decided to take advantage of the former Air Force base.

The company, Charter Air Transport, is the latest business to start using Castle’s facilities. Wednesday’s voyage was the first of many daily flights to come.

Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County, said that as the company continues to use the airport, it could generate more activity there and the operation could expand to other facilities.

“This is a big step for us,” he said, adding that the move represents many years of hard work and upgrades to the airport’s infrastructure.

Charter Air Transport had been operating at other airports, but had trouble with them during the summer months because of shorter runways that can’t handle heavy planes during hot weather. Planes would instead land in Fresno and passengers would be bused to their locations.

But Castle’s long runways allow for planes to take off and land year-round, making it an attractive alternative for the charter service. Cheaper fuel services were also a factor.

Wednesday’s inaugural landing dropped off about 30 German travelers on their way to visit Yosemite National Park, while another 30 Germans boarded the twin-engine Brasilia plane and headed to Utah.

Jens-Olaf Schulze, one of the tourists headed from Merced to Utah on Wednesday, said his group was on a tour of America, visiting places such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

Schulze thought highly of the American scenery, despite the dreary weather.

Jim Price, vice president and operations manager for Gemini Flight Support at Castle Airport, said the charter service is an economic boost to his company, mainly through fuel sales.

This is the first charter service to locate at Castle, he said.

“We provided those facilities and things that the charter company was looking for, and this looks to be a relationship that may pan out to other things, we hope,” Price said. “But for right now, we’re pleased that we can accommodate this size aircraft and do what we can.”

Hendrickson affirmed that the charter company could draw more business for Castle and has the potential to open the door for other opportunities.

The county should see small financial gains through more fueling fees at Castle, said Hendrickson, who sees the upswing of interest at Castle as a promising sign for Merced County.

Charter Air Transport doesn’t have scheduled service for non-tour flights.