At the same time, the museum began to assemble the foundation of its aircraft collection—individual planes arriving in Pensacola through a variety of avenues. One, a rare export version of the FF—the first Grumman fighter built for the Navy (see “Historic Aircraft,” page 16)—was found in a Nicaraguan junkyard, restored by Grumman, and flown to Florida for donation to the museum. A Curtiss MF flying boat of the type that once motored in the waters of Pensacola Bay was acquired from a private donor; other aircraft retired to the museum directly from Fleet service, including the Martin SP-5B Marlin that was the Navy’s last operational flying boat.
With a growing row of aircraft—most in need of restoration and in various states of repair—lining the seawall on board NAS Pensacola, it was evident that the museum needed a larger facility, which in 1966 sparked the establishment of the Naval Aviation Museum Association (later Foundation). Under the leadership of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Arthur W. Radford, the association launched a fund-raising drive that in 1974 resulted in the construction of the first module of what has since developed into a 400,000-square-foot complex, the latest addition being a 55,000-square-foot display hangar.
To visit the National Naval Aviation Museum today is to journey into history while never losing sight of the present and future of naval aviation. The constant sounds of airplanes in which the next generation of naval aviators are training and the roar of the Pensacola-based Blue Angels practicing their world-famous aerial routines fill the air while one explores flying machines of yesteryear. From a collection of just a handful of aircraft, the museum’s holdings now number nearly 1,000 planes, most of them on loan to other museums, military bases, and historic sites around the country and even overseas. The 150 aircraft on display at the museum represent the most historic naval aircraft in existence.
The centerpiece is the Navy Curtiss NC-4. On loan from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the airplane that in May 1919 became the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean reflects the Smithsonian’s long-standing support of the museum begun by the institution’s venerable curator Paul Garber, a Naval Reserve officer. The NC-4, which after its famous flight made a recruiting tour that included stops in Pensacola, was in storage for most of the ensuing years until restored and displayed on the National Mall in 1969 on the 50th anniversary of its landmark crossing. It has been on display in its current home for more than three decades. The plane’s presence has prompted the donation of an array of valuable artifacts connected to its famous flight, including worn wing fabric and some of the original dazzling array of decorations awarded to its crew.
While the NC-4 successfully crossed ocean waters, other aircraft in the museum survive today because their final flights were not as successful. From the museum’s inception, one noticeably glaring hole in the collection was in World War II carrier aircraft. Some of the most notable planes of the era were not represented, while in the case of the SBD Dauntless dive-bomber, an imposter in the form of an Army Air Forces version displayed in Navy colors was on exhibit.
In 1990, under the leadership of its current director, retired Navy Captain Robert L. Rasmussen, the museum began searching for these rare warbirds in an unlikely place: the waters of Lake Michigan. In 1942, with the need to carrier-qualify pilots on waters far removed from the threat of U-boats, the Navy purchased two Great Lakes passenger steamers and converted them to Lake Michigan aircraft carriers. Over the course of the war, thousands of naval aviators, among them future President George H. W. Bush, logged their first shipboard landings on and takeoffs from the USS Wolverine (IX-64) and Sable (IX-81). Not surprisingly, some of them put aircraft into the drink during the process. Thus, by war’s end, the cold lake bottom held scores of planes, some fresh from the factory and others combat veterans serving their twilight tours in the training command.
The first aircraft recovered for the museum from Lake Michigan was an F4F-3 Wildcat, which was followed by an SB2U Vindicator and an SBD Dauntless, all of them types not represented in the collection. In many cases, when these aircraft emerged from their extended stays underwater, 1940s air remained in their tires and survival gear packed during World War II could still be found in their compartments. A battery in one of the aircraft, after cleaning, was found to still hold a charge.
The museum’s most notable combat veteran to emerge from the waters of Lake Michigan is an SBD-2 Dauntless (Bureau Number 2106) that was on Ford Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and subsequently flew from the deck of the Lexington (CV-2) during a 10 March 1942 raid against Japanese shipping off New Guinea. Less than two months later, the airplane launched from Midway Atoll for an attack against the Japanese fleet, returning with more than 200 bullet holes in its fuselage, the wartime patches used for repair still visible on the aircraft today. The most recent recoveries, which occurred in 2010, include an original F4U-1 Corsair with the early “birdcage” canopy and an F6F-3 Hellcat that flew combat missions in the Solomon Islands, including escorting a plane carrying Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey to Guadalcanal.
The museum’s underwater recoveries have not been confined to the Great Lakes. In 1990 a Navy ship searching the Pacific off the coast of California inadvertently happened on the wreck of an F3F-2 biplane that had ditched during an attempted landing on board the Saratoga (CV-3) in 1940. Research revealed that the pilot that day had been a young Marine lieutenant named Robert E. Galer, who was on the dock to greet his old plane when it arrived at North Island. While the crash did not affect his career, which included his earning the Medal of Honor for combat actions at Guadalcanal and advancement to brigadier general upon his retirement, Galer was originally faulted for not switching to another fuel tank. But the restoration of the plane exonerated him more than a half century after the fact; workers discovered that he had taken that measure and a malfunctioning system was to blame for his mishap.
While the aircraft displayed at the museum are destined never to fly again, some have arrived through the air, making their final landings on the runway at Forrest Sherman Field behind the museum. Two veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom are among those in this category: one the last F-14 Tomcat fighter to fly a combat mission, and the other an S-3 Viking antisubmarine aircraft, which on 1 May 2003 was known by the name “Navy 1” when it carried then-President George W. Bush to the Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) for his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech on board the carrier. It’s one of three aircraft in the museum’s collection with ties to Commanders-in-Chief. The others are a VH-3 Sea King helicopter that was once in the executive flight detachment of HMX-1, the Marine squadron responsible for transporting the President and other VIPs, and a Stearman N2S biplane that former President George H. W. Bush flew twice during his primary flight training at NAS Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Although the technological development of naval airpower is best told through the array of aircraft on display, the human dimension of Sea Service aviation emerges in a host of ways—from combat artist Edward T. Grigware’s colorful portraits of Enterprise (CV-6) aviators peering out from the past on the walls of the museum’s art gallery to the flight jacket once worn by Lieutenant (junior grade) Everett Alvarez, the longest-held prisoner of war in North Vietnam. In another exhibit, a rustic homemade sign shipped directly from Iraq welcomes visitors to Naval Air Facility Baghdad, while a mandolin etched with names of World War I air stations charts the travels of a Sailor in the Great War.
Personal history is also present in the museum’s Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library, which opened in 1992. It houses in its collection the letters of Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin, written when he arrived to establish the Navy’s first aeronautic station at Pensacola in 1914, and the original notes kept by Lieutenant Henry L. Miller documenting the progress of the Doolittle Raiders when he trained them to launch Army Air Forces twin-engine bombers from an aircraft carrier.
Some of the museum’s most popular exhibits are immersive. One devoted to the World War II home front beckons visitors to stroll down a re-creation of a typical American downtown street complete with a Blue Star flag hanging in a window and a country store with products priced with ration points. Past the façade of a recruiting station are life-size dioramas depicting parts of a Pacific island air base and below-decks spaces of a flattop, the latter’s recycled air blowing through the vents and vintage equipment giving it an air of authenticity.
The Cubi Bar Café duplicates part of a popular Pacific watering hole—the officers’ club at NAS Cubi Point, the Philippines, where aviators hung colorful plaques that commemorated their squadrons’ tours. When the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo led to the closing of the naval air station, the contents of the famous bar were packed in crates and shipped to Pensacola for resurrection as both a museum exhibit and restaurant. On any given day, one can see graying gentlemen scanning plaques looking for their or squadronmates’ names.
Visitors can’t take to the skies in any of the museum’s aircraft, but they can experience the thrill of flight by watching one of the aviation-themed movies at the IMAX Naval Aviation Memorial Theater at the museum. The theater boasts an enormous 62-by-82-foot screen.
For those with any connection to naval aviation—be it through firsthand experience, the legacy of parents or grandparents who served, or just fascination—the National Naval Aviation Museum is a special place. Retired Navy Rear Admiral George M. “Skip” Furlong, who spearheaded capital campaigns that led to the museum’s expansion, recently recalled how Naval Aviation Museum Foundation President Admiral Maurice F. Weisner once told him, “A big part of your compensation is the privilege of working in this building.” Furlong, his voice cracking slightly, added, “Now, I never figured out how to spend that but I think I know what he meant.”
National Naval Aviation Museum
Open daily 0900–1700. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
1750 Radford Blvd.
Pensacola, Florida 32508