The Wild Blue Yonder of Pensacola

Visitors have to give Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum a couple of days to do it justice.  I had absolutely no idea the US had ever built so many different planes, helicopters, bi-planes, space shuttles, jets, and bombers for the Navy; I’m not sure I’ve even begun to cover all the types of aircraft.  But if one wants a good education about machinery the Navy has put in the air, this is the museum to provide the information.  It has the WOW factor.

Looking for a spot of warm weather last January, my husband and I loaded the car and headed to Pensacola.  I’ve heard so much about this spectacular museum for a couple of years that I’d decided it needed to be Point 1 on my “bucket list.”  It does not disappoint and it’s free.  What a significant punch to make you prouder to be an American than first time parents.

Photography: John McCutcheon

This gigantic place has two decks: the Main Deck and the Second Deck, plus another new 55,000 square feet of exhibits titled Hangar Bay One.  Here planes after WWII are displayed: for example the Skytrain, Neptune, and Marlin. 

The Main Deck hosts more aircraft than any one average visitor can visualize; aircraft hang at all different levels from the ceiling and crowd the floor space.  Along with an IMAX Theatre, there are exhibits of WWI, a library, a Flight Deck Store, guided tour kiosk, a West Wing with WWII war aircraft and the USS Cabot flight deck, a Cubi Bar Cafe, and an Atrium section just for the Blue Angels where visitors are allowed to board a couple of these retired aircraft.  One of the most moving is a Viet Nam POW exhibit that dramatically recreates Hoa Lo Prison.  Here are actual letters prisoners had written to their children and some of the prisoners’ ratty garments.

The Second Deck hosts exhibits for WWII Pacific, a WWII Carrier, a flight adventure deck, an art gallery, HD-3D flight simulators, cockpit trainers, and a motion based flight simulator.  These are not just for kids; they’re fun. The Space Exhibit is the actual Skylab 2 that carried an all-Navy crew to the earth-orbiting Skylab.

Photography: John McCutcheon

One plane on exhibit has a unique history in our travels. In 1989 we celebrated July 4 in St. Louis.  The fireworks show included a mind boggling demonstration by an accomplished naval pilot at the controls of an AV-8A Harrier.  The Harrier hovered over a barge out in the river, landing and taking off like a helicopter.  Watching it shoot forward and backward without turning was fascinating.  A combination jet and helicopter flying backwards?  Who’d have thought it?  At the museum one can read and examine closely the Harrier’s ability.  It can scat fast as a gnat, able to reach speeds over 695 mph.

Another aircraft of interest is the F8 jet, called “the last of the gunfighters,” because it was loaded with  20 mm cannon when fighter pilots had begun to rely more on missiles.  Remarkable to me is that it was the first jet designed to reach speeds exceeding 1000 mph.

“On 16 July 1957, future astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., USMC, flew a photo reconnaissance version of the aircraft in a record transcontinental flight taking off from Los Alamitos, California, and reaching Floyd Bennett Field, New York, in 3 hours, 22 minutes, and 50:05 seconds.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis it was fitted with cameras rather than weaponry for reconnaissance flights.  Then it was used further for strike and combat air patrol over Viet Nam. Unique in design at the time, its wings could be raised and with its lower nose positioning pilots had better visibility for landing on carriers and runways.  Also it was capable of landing and taking off at slow speeds.  Credited with shooting down eighteen MiGs in aerial combat, it was retired in 1987.

For many of us visitors, one story makes the eyes well.  As the Navy was leaving Viet Nam and the NVA were marching into Saigon on April 30, 1975, a South Vietnamese Captain commandered a Cessna O1 Birddog, which is a tiny spotter plane.  Packed with his wife and three children, he circled over the USS Midway, dropping papers announcing that he needed permission to land on the Midway.  He could not return to Saigon because he and his family would be executed.  Quickly the men of the Midway shuffled Naval aircraft on the deck to make room for the landing.  Today this Captain and his family live in Florida.   All three children have been graduated from American universities and now live productive lives among us.   Many stories of desperation, heroism, and sacrifice have come out of this tumultuous time in American history.  But these only serve to credit hard sacrifices many Americans made.

Since I have about as much engineering and scientific ability as wall paint, I was impressed almost beyond words.  This museum makes you proud of American ingenuity, proud of the Navy, and forever proud to be an American.

Tip: The National Naval Aviation Museum is open from 9-5 every day of the week except Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.  Again admission is free along with guided tours.  The address is 1750 Radford Boulevard.  Visit for more information.

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