Yes, sir, this is one hell of a wondrous place tucked away on Naval Air Station Pensacola. If you breeze through this part of the Gulf Coast, don’t you dare let the pestering wife and screaming kids make you miss one of the great military museums in the world. Before you come in, have a short talk with the fam and mention a whole section dedicated to the important role women have always played in aviation. For the kids, promise them sights, hands-on exhibits and rides that take them into the wild blue with the Blue Angels.
Do you find yourself saying: “Yeah, sure, another stack of dusty old stuff sitting around for me to stare at. All the same to you if we just go have a beer?”
No, you dull minded nitwit, it’s not all the same to me. There are more tentacles of history running through this museum than you’ve ever imagined. Important history and not just history, but heroic, breathtaking stories that you’ve never heard. History streaked with the blood and gritty determination of men and women who took us from wood and cloth covered airplanes, dangerous and freakishly chancy, to air travel that’s as necessary to the 21st Century as trains were to the 19th.
“Wait a sec,” you’re saying, “I thought you said this was Naval Aviation!” See, you just lack the knowledge, and it’s another reason you need to visit a few museums. When the dream of manned flight escaped from Orville and Wilbur’s bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio and took it’s first gasping breath on the sandy hills four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a new world was born. Maybe it was a new wing (pun intended) of the library. One giant lift-off for mankind. Pick your own metaphor.
The reality is it’s only since the middle of the 20th Century that aviation really untangled itself and spawned Army Aviation, Naval Aviation, Air Force Aviation, Commercial Aviation, and General Aviation. In the beginning, there was only aviation, period. Yes, yes, I know a stickler will claim the aviation branches came along much earlier. Ok, you’re right, but Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 attack on the Japanese mainland was Army B-25 bombers lifting off from a Navy carrier. And who provided the Intelligence? A naval officer.
No, I’m not going to lead you through all the trials and successes, failures and growth. And yes, of course the National Naval Aviation Museum focuses on the Naval part, but this museum has so much more to offer, and is superbly organized into World War I, between the wars, World War II, and modern aircraft. Along the way, you’ll meet the Curtiss Jenny, an aircraft that trained so many pilots following the First World War, including Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and military pilots from all services. The Jenny in the museum is a cutaway and affords you a firsthand look at the delicate design that just barely kept pilots away from violent death.
You’ll see flimsy craft like the British WWI airplane the Sopwith Camel. Know how long the average British fighter pilot lasted on the Western Front in World War I? Three weeks. How much flying time did the lads get before going to France? 8-12 hours.
Even in World War II, we lost over 14,000 aircraft in training accidents. Aviation has always required courageous people.
|See the bullet hole patches?|
How about the Douglas Dauntless, the primary Naval dive bomber of World War II? You’ll learn all about it and especially the unlikely story of the Dauntless on display. Retired Naval pilots weave through the museum to explain and entertain and thrill and make even the seasoned aviator stay glued to the tales of desperate heroism and miraculous survival.
It’s not just U.S. Naval aircraft on display, also a slew of aircraft flown by the opposition: the German Fokker D-VII from WWI, Japanese Zero and German Me-262, and Soviet MIGs.
|Fokker D VII|
|Me 262, one of the first jet fighters|
|Korean War MIG 15|
I could write forever, but instead check out a few photos to whet your appetite. This museum won’t just entertain, but quickly turn you into a budding aviation historian. Your kids will suddenly want to be aviators and you’ll hear your wife whisper, “Honey, is it ok if we spend the night and come back again tomorrow?”
“Yes, dear, if you insist.” I applaud your unselfish spirit and budding interest in aviation. High five! I take back the part about you being a dull minded nitwit. Now let’s go grab that beer.
|P-40 Warhawk in the colors of the American Volunteer Group in China|
|Ball turret from a PBY4, the Navy version of the B-24 Liberator|