A Visit to the National Naval Aviation Museum

Home for me is Pensacola, Florida.  I may not live there any more, but I still have family there.  I don’t visit as often as I’d like to, but I’ve been trying to get home more these days. I planned a trip home after recovering from my last reconstruction surgery just to get some nice salt air in my lungs, and to let everyone see that I’m doing better.

The A-4 Skyhawk Blues
The A-4 Skyhawk Blues

One of the things I had on my to-do list was to visit the Naval Museum.  I haven’t been in ten years and I’ve always loved it, even as a child.  I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to see it with my new found perspective on planes and flying.  What started out to be a day trip to the museum, turned into a two day visit.

E-2 Hawkeye

A lot has changed in ten years at the museum, it’s now the world’s largest Naval Aviation Museum. They have more than 150 planes, beautifully restored and displayed. There’s 350,000 square feet of space to roam.  The best part is that admission is free, but if you enjoy yourself, they gladly accept donations. There are reasonably priced IMAX movies to watch, and a variety of simulators to test your pilot skills.

Me and Jason in the F4 Cockpit
Me and Jason in the F4 Cockpit

The museum is rich in history. You only have to walk around to realize just how deep the history goes in this place.  Extensive restorations have been done on some aircraft,  and each has been magnificently brought back to life as if it were new.  Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aircraft are on display, lovingly cared for, dust free and each with wonderful access to see them up close.  Just be careful not to drool on them in passing.

Navy Curtiss, the first Navy plane to cross the Atlantic
Navy Curtiss, the first Navy plane to cross the Atlantic

You can wander the museum by yourself and stroll from aircraft to aircraft reading about each one as you move through the hangers.  If you want more information and a guided tour, you can take one with the wonderful staff, some with first hand knowledge and experience with some of the planes.

Beautiful models of ships and planes are on display
Beautiful models of ships and planes are on display

A trip to the museum can open your world to a wide range of planes and history from different eras.  I’m smitten by them all, each with a character all their own, but the vintage, pre-1945 planes have won my heart.  I marvel at the workmanship, the engineering behind them.  These were the first planes to ever take to the skies, and I dream of what that must have been like. Can you imagine the look on people’s faces the first time they ever saw a plane in the sky? Can you imagine piloting one of them? Remarkable!

Nieuport 28
Nieuport 28

I love the wood and fabric frames and coverings, the big beautiful radial engines, the simple controls.  What must it have been like to navigate in the beginning? There were no towers to avoid, no ATC to assist you, few planes in the air to possibly collide with…awe, simplicity at it’s best.  Pioneers in aviation, the stories they must have told!

Thomas-Morse S4 Scout era 1917
Thomas-Morse S4 Scout era 1917

Each plane on site with a history of its own, and stories to tell if you’re willing to listen or read or research a bit more.  Each plane looks lovingly cared for, stands regally and proud for passer by’s to marvel at their size,  markings, or wings and don’t forget about those sexy props and noses!

Curtiss-Wright BFC-2 Goshawk
Curtiss-Wright BFC-2 Goshawk

I couldn’t help looking over the Dauntless and running my hand gently across the front of her wing, thinking about what it would be like to pre-flight this beauty.  Strong and firm beneath my touch, I feel the curve of the wing and caress my fingers along the front edge to where it curves at the end to check the light.  I turn to look up towards the cockpit and smile.  Gorgeous!

You can use the link below to see a tour of the cockpit.

http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/education/virtual-tour/?pano=MUSEUM/COCKPITS/SBD-2/SBD-2

This SBD-2 Dauntless, Bureau number 2106 is one of the most historic aircraft around today.  It survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It was loaded on the USS Lexington and part of the raid on the Japanese at New Guinea. It was later part of another attack on the Hiryu, and after dive bombing, it was chased by a pair of Zeros for miles.  1st Lieutenant Daniel Iverson landed the badly injured plane on one wheel at Midway with no hydraulics. It had 219 bullet holes laced across it.

It was repaired and went to Illinois for Carrier Qualification Training. On June 11, 1943, it was ditched during an errant approach and sank in Lake Michigan where it lay for 51 years before being recovered in 1994.  It went through extensive restorations before being placed on display in 2001.  You can read more about it’s amazing history here.  http://collections.naval.aviation.museum/emuwebdoncoms/pages/doncoms/Display.php?irn=16028043

SBD-2 Dauntless, the only known surviving aircraft from the Battle of Midway
SBD-2 Dauntless, the only known surviving aircraft from the Battle of Midway

How could a pilot not fall in love with their plane? How could you spend so much time with one and not know every secret, every hum and purr of the engine, know how the rudder feels, the slight stick of the right pedal when you first press on it, know the exact feel of the control and just the right amount of pressure to turn exactly where you want to go?  Pilot and plane in sync is an amazing thing.  You see it with the aerobatic pilots at any air show.  Tell me they don’t know their planes intimately?

TBM-3E Avenger
TBM-3E Avenger

Want to start a love affair with planes? Visit the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, wander through the hangers, read about the extraordinary beginnings of each of them.  Admire their unique designs, their powerful engines, look at the curve of their wings and tell me you aren’t excited to know more about their adventures.

MiG-15
MiG-15

If you can’t get there soon, check out their amazing interactive website. You can take a 360 degree tour of the cockpits on line under the education tab. They also have information about the planes on their website.  It’s a kid friendly place, there are cockpits to sit in and pretend you are a fighter pilot.  If you can only do one movie, check out the Magic of Flight film and ride along with the Blue Angels.  It’s breathtaking to see how close they fly in formation.

The kids checking out one of the helicopter cockpits.
The kids checking out one of the helicopter cockpits.

http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/

If you get hungry, visit the museum’s Cubi Bar Cafe for lunch.  It’s a replica of the original bar from the Philippines, filled with the actual plaques that were once in it.  The original bar closed in 1992 and the plaques were sent to the museum.  They have recreated it as it once was and you can admire each of them.  It’s one of the most unique bars I’ve seen.  I see why it was a favorite hangout.

The Cubi Cafe
The Cubi Cafe

There is so much to see and do, give yourself plenty of time to see it all, even if that means you have to come back another day or two. I know that even after two days of it, I still wished I had more time.

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