The National Museum of Naval Aviation

The National Museum of Naval Aviation

Article and photos by Eric Hehs

This article appeared in the April 1998 issue of Code One Magazine.

The National Museum of Naval Aviation bills itself as one of the world’s three largest aviation museums, but it is second to none in many respects. Located on the grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola on the southwestern tip of the Florida panhandle, the museum’s visitation reached the one million mark in 1997. More than 130 beautifully restored aircraft, artifacts, and memorabilia tell the story of almost nine decades of US Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard Aviation.

NAS Pensacola is a fitting place for the museum. The air station encompasses the historic Pensacola Navy Yard, which dates back to the early nineteenth century. Pensacola, known as “The Cradle of Naval Aviation,” succeeded what was termed a naval air encampment at Greenbury Point in Maryland as the training site for naval aviators in 1914. It was Pensacola, however, that was designated as the first naval air station in the United States. Naval Aviation training still begins today aboard the wide expanses, runways, and hangars of NAS Pensacola, which is also home of the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron.

The museum traces its own roots to 1955 when Capts.
Bernard Strean and Magruder Tuttle, two officers assigned to the
training command at NAS Pensacola, decided to create a museum that
would preserve the history of Naval Aviation. The first effort was
located in a tiny World War II-era building that had enough room for
only a handful of small aircraft. Beginning with 8,500 square feet,
only a half dozen small, but historic, aircraft were on display, along
with astronaut Scott Carpenter’s Aurora 7 Mercury capsule. The museum
compensated for its lack of space with heavy reliance on scale model

In December 1962, the Secretary of the Navy
announced the official establishment of the Naval Aviation Museum. Its
charge was, and still is, to select, collect, preserve, and display
appropriate memorabilia representative of the development, growth, and
historic heritage of Naval Aviation. The museum began accumulating more
and more aircraft and eventually opened its doors to the public in
1968. The Naval Aviation Museum Association, a non-profit organization,
was established to support the construction of a new facility.
Incorporated under Florida law in 1966 as a non-profit, educational
organization, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation continues to be the
economic engine for the museum.

A new 110,000-square-foot
building was completed in 1975. Subsequent expansions have increased
the size to about 300,000 square feet. The most recent addition to the
museum is its $14 million expansion, which includes a new entrance
hall, a 525-seat IMAX theater, the Naval Aviation Monument, and the
production of an IMAX film dedicated to Naval Aviation.

F-14 greets visitors as they approach the museum. The entrance hall,
called the quarterdeck, has the striking Spirit of Naval Aviation
monument as a centerpiece. Atop a granite and marble base, five
seven-foot tall bronzes represent naval aviators from World Wars I and
II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm, each struck in period flight
gear. Overhead, five aircraft from corresponding periods highlight
aviation’s progress. The monument was unveiled at the National Air and
Space Museum in Washington in December 1994.

The museum
complex comprises the Quarterdeck, the IMAX theater, the south and west
wings, and the spacious Pensacola-Blue Angels Atrium adjoining the two
wings. A mezzanine level contains many more displays. The buildings
surround outdoor display areas. A free tour bus takes visitors to a
separate aircraft flight line display area and restoration facility.

ticket for the IMAX film takes visitors into a theater with a screen
that reaches almost seven stories in height and eighty-five feet in
width. Vivid visual effects and a 15,000-watt sound system put viewers
in the middle of the action. Opened in July 1996, the theater presented
the classic IMAX film, To Fly! That November, the theater held the
world premiere of the museum’s own film, The Magic of Flight. With
Naval Aviation as a vehicle for exploring the allure of
high-performance flight, the film includes breathtaking in-flight
sequences of a Blue Angels air show. In its first year of operation,
the theater entertained almost 400,000 viewers.

The south
wing holds a variety of aircraft that cover every age of Naval
Aviation. The area is dominated by a Curtiss NC, a large four-engined
flying boat built at the end of World War I. The NC-4 on display is the
first airplane to cross the Atlantic in May 1919, a full eight years
before Lindbergh’s epic flight. The trip was completed in three legs
and took seventeen days. The area also includes the Curtiss A-1 Triad,
the Navy’s first aircraft. The airplane is the waterborne version of
the basic Curtiss pusher used by Eugene Ely in the first shipboard
launch and arrested landing in November 1910. The A-1 is also credited
with many other firsts in Naval Aviation, including the first use of
airborne radio and several speed and endurance records.

early naval aircraft in this area include a JN-4 Jenny, Thomas-Morse
S-4C Scout, Fokker DVII (a German biplane fighter from World War I),
French Hanriot and Nieuport fighters, a Sopwith Camel, TS-1, F6C-1
Hawk, RR-6 Trimotor (the Ford Trimotor was used by the Navy and Marines
from 1927 to 1931), N2C-2 Fledgling, N2Y-1, F9C Sparrowhawk, FF-1 Fifi,
F3F, F4F, and N2S Kaydet, along with many others from the era.

Pensacola-Blue Angels Atrium adjoins the south wing. The atrium, which
features a diamond formation of Blue Angel A-4 Skyhawks hanging from
the ceiling, is one of the most visually stunning spaces of any museum
in the world. A bright yellow Stearman S2S, a World War II-era trainer
actually flown by Naval Aviator and former-president George Bush,
decorates one corner of the area below the Blue Angel formation.
(Bush’s flight log is on display near the airplane.) The spacious
atrium is often used for public events.

The Museum’s west
wing houses an exact replica of the flight deck and superstructure of a
famous light carrier, USS Cabot (CVL-28). The extensive combat record
of the carrier is proudly displayed just as painted on the original
ship. The carrier’s deck is occupied by several World War II aircraft,
including an SB2C Helldiver, F4U Corsair, TBM Avenger, F6F Hellcat, and
an F8F Bearcat. Several Japanese fighters are also on display in this
area including an N1K2-J Shiden Kai, code-named “George,” and an A6M-2B

The mezzanine level contains many interesting displays,
including a recreation of World War II-era small-town America. The
upper level allows visitors to view the airplanes from above. The
above-ground-floor areas also contain many unique displays, including
the interior spaces of an aircraft carrier, a World War II-era jungle
airstrip, a motion-based flight simulator, and an area dedicated to
enlisted pilots who served in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard
from 1916 into the early 1960s.

Visitors with an interest in
helicopters will not be disappointed. The museum’s collection includes
an HNS-1 Hoverfly, the Navy’s first helicopter; an HO3S, which happened
to be the first helicopter flown by the British armed forces; a TH-13M
Sioux, a derivative of the Bell model 47 made famous in the television
series MASH; two CH-19 Chickasaws, the first helicopter used for
transporting troops; an HTE-1, used for training; two UH-25 Retrievers,
used for transport and rescue missions during the Korean War; and an
H05S, the first helicopter to use metal rotor blades.

in 1990, the museum embarked on an underwater recovery effort in Lake
Michigan where, during World War II, a pair of training carriers served
to indoctrinate pilots in shipboard operations. The lake revealed
aircraft that were extremely rare or nonexistent, including an SB2U
Vindicator, only one of which survives today. Several versions of the
SBD Dauntless and F4F Wildcat were also recovered. Another underwater
find in the Pacific was a rare Grumman F3F, the last biplane fighter to
serve Naval Aviation. Several of these aircraft are being restored in
the museum’s adjoining restoration area, which is reached by free bus

The museum restaurant provides a great place for a lunch break in a historical setting. The restaurant, a reconstruction of the officer’s club at Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, contains more than 1,000 of the famous club’s squadron and unit plaques, tracking almost forty years of deployments to the Western Pacific by a variety of squadrons and carriers.

After lunch
is the perfect time to hit the jet age of Naval Aviation. The south
wing and outdoor collections include an FH-1 Phantom, the Navy’s first
jet; FJ-1, a progenitor of the Air Force’s F-86 Sabre; D-558 Skystreak,
a high-speed aircraft that probed the edges of the sound barrier in the
late 1940s; F7U Cutlass, which incorporated an unusual tailless design;
F2H Banshee, which saw combat in Korea; F9F Panther, Grumman’s first
jet fighter and the leader of a long line of aircraft that provided the
bulk of the Navy’s fighters for several years; F3D Skynight, the first
all-weather fighter to use jet propulsion; FJ-2 and FJ-4 Furies; F9F-6
Cougar, the swept-wing follow-on to the Panther, F-6A Skyray, an
all-weather interceptor; F-11 Tiger; A-3 Skywarrior, the largest and
heaviest aircraft designed for carrier use; and an F-8 Crusader, the
first operational carrier-based aircraft to exceed 1,000 mph. Also on
display are aircraft of the modern era: an F-4 Phantom II; AV-8A
Harrier; F/A-18 Hornet; A-6 Intruder; A-7 Corsair II; F-14 Tomcat; and
the Navy’s version of the famous F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Most visitors head to the museum’s excellent gift shop before pulling anchor. A historical collection of Navy flight jackets, patches and equipment is on display just in front of the gift shop entrance. Inside, visitors can purchase their own flight jackets or select from a variety of books, clothing, models, posters, and other items to remember their experience at the world’s greatest museum of Naval Aviation.

Eric Hehs

The National Museum of Naval Aviation is open daily except holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The museum’s website:

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