Story and Photography By Taris Savell
Youngsters, from toddlers on up, clutch adults’ hands, pulling them on to another plane. Parents are as anxious as their children to touch the wings. Is it fun? Is it educational? Is it historical? Is it amazing? Yes, to all of that.
Every year approximately seven hundred thousand visitors tour Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum. Of those, a large number are from out of state and taking vacations along the Gulf Coast. According to Vice Admiral Gerald Hoewing, USN (Ret), president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the museum keeps a guest logbook at the Information Desk, and looking at a list of the states from which visitors come will bring to mind a map of the entire United States.
The museum, which is free to all guests, is an attraction like no other in the area, and few others nationwide. The first glimpse of the interior is breathtaking and, frankly, jaw-dropping. No brochure can prepare a visitor for the initial sight of the 300,000-square-foot exhibit space filled with more than one hundred fifty aircraft on the floor, including the Curtiss NC-4 flying boat—the first plane to make a transatlantic flight, or the Douglas SBD Dauntless that flew at the Battle of Midway, as seen in the movie Midway (1976), starring Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda, and Charlton Heston, a portion of which was filmed aboard a carrier that was actually stationed in Pensacola at the time of filming. When this particular Dauntless was recovered from Lake Michigan in 1990, it took approximately one hundred museum staff and volunteers almost four years and seventy thousand hours to historically restore the plane. Original battle damage repairs were preserved during the restoration so the aircraft could be viewed as it had looked after its combat years and not as if it had just come from the factory.
If you are under the impression the museum features only airplanes, forget it. Start walking and you’ll spot replicas of survival training campsites, prisoner-of-war compounds, an area designed to show how Pensacola looked during the World War II era, and a sculpture of Bob Hope entertaining the troops. Astronauts are saluted, as are early Naval pioneers, in a number of exhibits that will surprise and astound any guest. The entire museum is a marvel to behold because nothing seems to have been overlooked.
The rare opportunity to become a part of Naval Aviation and the role it played in the nation’s fight and flight for democracy, through a visual experience, is only the tip of the wing span. The more than four thousand uniforms, flight gear, weaponry, medals, and decorations contribute to the feeling of being a part, even for a moment, of our history. The Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library is home to official papers of prominent Naval Aviators, squadron records, and a collection of over 350,000 photographs.
The museum has free tours daily given by a team of expert tour guides, many of whom are veterans with real-life stories that make each tour unique. These guided walk-throughs can last from one hour to more than two, depending on the guide and questions from the group. The tours are among the most popular activities at the museum, though guests are welcome to roam around by themselves; however, a lot of historical information is missed without a guide’s input.
One of the most exciting projects the foundation has undertaken is the future National Flight Academy, which Hoewing says, “stands to provide the best-in-the-world aviation-inspired learning experience for young people grades seven through twelve. Through a high-fidelity, totally immersive simulation of a modern aircraft carrier, young people from all demographics and regions will have the opportunity to experience focused immersion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Enthusiasm for the Academy is reflected in the recent $1.25 million donation made to the program by the St. Joe Company.
Aviation will be the primary teaching tool, and students will spend their entire stay fully immersed as aviators. The interior space will be patterned after an aircraft carrier, which includes details to make students feel like they are living and breathing as pilots. From the sleeping berths in the junior officer staterooms to the cafeteria-style tables on the mess deck, the entire facility offers an authentic and unique experience to all students. The 100,000-square-foot, four-floor academy is currently under construction and will open in May 2011 during the centennial celebration of Naval Aviation.
The museum originally opened in 1963 with 8,500 square feet in a renovated wood-frame building. The non-profit Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, founded in 1966, is the fund-raising arm and educational group that supports the museum through worldwide membership and various revenue-generating operations. These include the IMAX Theatre, which boasts a seven-story-high screen and seats 535, and the Flight Deck Store, with its “awesome” inventory of gift items such as propellers, Blue Angels mugs, flight suits, key chains, games, books, and T-shirts, of course. Browsing through the store can take up to as long as an hour just to look at everything.
“I was really impressed with the number and variety of exhibits. There are things to see for people of all ages. Very well organized and extremely educational. A must-see for anyone visiting Pensacola or the Gulf Coast,” said Richard Lipsey, who visited the museum while vacationing on the Gulf Coast this past summer.
The famed Blue Angels flight team, stationed in Pensacola, is represented at the museum in the Blue Angels Atrium, with three of the planes hanging from the high ceiling as if they were actually soaring overhead. The atrium is used for Navy events, including the impressive change-of-command ceremony as one flag officer’s duty comes to an end and a replacement presents his or her orders.
The treasures that are featured in the National Naval Aviation Museum provide an experience not to be missed. We often think of museums as boring, rainy-day places, but this one will change your mind ... even when the sun is shining.
One quick tip: If you’re browsing by yourself, be sure to look and remember the path you take. I live here, and I still get lost in there. No GPS around.
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