National Naval Aviation Museum
If you are headed to the Florida panhandle the Naval Aviation Museum is a great stop. Located in Pensacola, it’s the nicest military museums in the country. I haven’t seen all of them, but this one is superb. There are over 150 aircraft on site as well as an IMAX theatre.
The Museum was recently expanded and in November 2010 opened “Hangar Bay One” (which filled up quickly) behind the original building. One impressive aircraft there (along with the last active F-14 Tomcat) is the SP-5B Marlin, the last active flying boat in the Navy. The aircraft are displayed with an absence of barriers. You can walk up to about all of them (I can’t think of any behind barriers) and look as close as you like.
The main museum has some impressive displays, which range from biplanes to WWII to Korean era jets. There is a diamond formation of Blue Angels A-4 Skyhawks suspended from the ceiling as well as helicopters and other aircraft. You can see some pretty rare aircraft such as a Cutlass and even a ME-262. This ME-262, was the pattern used to reverse engineer the current flying replica ME-262s. It sat outside NAS Willow Grove for many years after the war. It’s one of a pair of two seaters that survived the war, the other being in South Africa. The loan to the ME-262 project got it restored and it is amazing (yes… I am a ME-262 fan). For the aircraft suspended from the ceiling, there are walkways around the galleries that allow you to see them from their levels. With the buildings being very well lighted, and painted white inside as well as second story access, top notch photography is pretty easy. It’s a very accessible museum.
There are quite a few cockpits (of nose sections of aircraft) you are allowed to climb into and play with. Yes they actually allow adult children in them too. I know, I tried a few on for size. The Museum has guided tours with docents lecturing and telling stories about the exhibits. The museum also has trolley tours of the flightline which takes you behind the fences to the aircraft parked outside the restoration area. There used to be tours of the actual restoration center where you could see people restoring aircraft, but those have been temporarily suspended. Before you go, check the museum website at http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/home.aspx to see if they have been restarted.
For lunch, you need to stop at the Cubi Bar Café. It’s an exhibit into itself. The walls are decorated with unit plaques (many are true works of art) from Naval Aviation units that passed through NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines. When the NAS closed in 1992 the decorations were shipped to NAS Pensacola for inclusion in the Museum. Not only is the food good, but it’s entertaining to walk through the Café to see the “sights”.
They have one thing you can’t get anywhere else which is a chance to see the Blue Angels practice sessions. During the season (check websites for details) on most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, the Blues are practicing at the airfield just behind the museum. Session starts at 8:30 AM (plan on arriving by 7:30AM), the team members sign autographs at the Museum after the Wednesday sessions. I’ve been to several and there are always several thousand people in attendance. Well worth getting up for.
If you are coming here, you can also head over to the USS Alabama in Mobile, which is only an hour west on I10. Be sure to stop at the rest areas on I10 during the trip, because they have an A-4 and a F-11 on “sticks” painted in Blue Angels colors. While not affiliated with the Naval Aviation Museum, the USS Alabama also has aircraft on display outside and in their own hangar.
The US Navy’s Aviation Museum at Pensacola is nothing short of spectacular and is well worth the trip from anywhere in the free world. The facility is great and you will be happy to spend the day here. They hope to see you soon.
I would like to thank Patrick Nichols, Public Affairs Officer at NAS Pensacola for his assistance in making this story possible.
You can contact the writer Mark Hrutkay at TNMark@Me.Com.