By now you know how much I love aviation museums. They’re the perfect way to chase away the winter blues. But recently I found something even better. What could be better than aviation museums? Aviation museums IN FLORIDA. And when you only have time to visit one aviation museum in Florida then your destination HAS to be Pensacola. Why? Because that’s where the National Museum of Naval Aviation is.
This museum doesn’t pull any punches. The first thing you see when you arrive is an F-14. And it’s not just sitting tamely by the front door. No, it’s up on a pedestal, wings swept back, looking as intense and as mean as only an F-14 can look. And did I mention that it is located on an active Naval Air Station? That’s right – there’s gates and guards and people in uniform everywhere. It’s awesome.
Once inside it just gets better. There is pretty much every Navy airplane you can think of. There are also a whole bunch you didn’t think of. Take flying boats, for example. Sure I’d heard of them. I’ve seen the Martin Mars at Oshkosh so I know how impressive they can be. Yet somehow the flying boats at the Navy Air Museum managed to be even more impressive still. Perhaps it’s the way they drawf everything around them. Maybe it’s the way they are a perfect blend of boat and airplane. Whatever reason, I fell instantly and completely in love with them!
The main part of the museum has two floors that are crammed full of airplanes and displays, including an exhibit on lighter-than-air ships and an extensive display of airplane engines. (I finally understand how a radial engine works!) There is also an impressive WWII area that gives you a taste of what life was like on board an aircraft carrier. The second floor of the museum is open to the main gallery areas which I LOVE because it allows you to look closely at the planes that are suspended from the ceiling. I could have spent the entire day in the main building, but I didn’t because there’s a second building that I just HAD to see – Hangar Bay One.
There was one airplane that I had been searching for the whole visit and I finally tracked it down in Hangar Bay One. No, not the F-14 or the F-18 or the F-4 (although they are all there and they all ROCK). The plane I was looking for was the Bird Dog. Yes, that’s right. Tucked in the midst of all these power-house fighters is an ordinary little plane that looks a lot like a Cessna… because it is. But it’s not your ordinary GA airplane. It’s a Cessna that landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, flown by a pilot who had never even seen a carrier before, much less landed on one. Did I mention there were seven people crammed into the plane’s small cabin? You absolutely MUST hear the full story. I highly recommend you listen to Captain Nick’s Plane Tale about it.
Hangar Bay one also includes exhibits on female naval aviators, the coast guard and the space program. There are also lots of stand-alone cockpits that you can climb into. As is always the case, there are never enough hours in the day to really see and do everything I wanted. However, I did make some time to stop at the museum store on my way out.
The one thing I didn’t get to do during my visit was take a look at the airplanes that are parked out back. I didn’t realize that the only way to see them is via trolley tour. The tours fill up fast and unfortunately by the time I tried to sign up, it was too late. But that’s OK. Now I have an excuse to go back (as if I really needed one). If you ever find yourself in the area you absolutely MUST visit this museum. And yes, it’s totally OK to listen to the Top Gun theme on the drive in