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Few endeavors in life contain as much color, personality and history as does the history of the United States Navy. More to the point, the aviation portion of that history has played important roles throughout the world during wars and conflict. The personalities and the people have mixed since the first US Navy air combat sorties was flown in 1914. Through the years, heroes such as O'Hare, Bordeleon, Cunningham and a score of others have woven the fabric of Naval Aviation lore.


As important as the people that served their country were the aircraft they served in. Without these superior tools of war, the history that has lead us to today's standing may have turned out quite different. From Pearl Harbor to Japan, from the Tonkin Gulf to the Persian Gulf, Navy aircraft have projected America's power across the globe. Only one location can claim an almost complete collection of Naval aircraft at one location; The National Museum of Naval Aviation.


Located at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida, the museum's collection is considerable. Obviously devoted to Navy and Marine aircraft, the collection covers trainers, fighters, attack, and transport aircraft, along with helicopters and some interesting examples from other countries and services. Several experimental aircraft fill out the display area. Visitors will find a Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk, the Skylab Command Module, a Fokker DVII, and a South Vietnamese L-19. Overall, the entire collection represents a considerable portion of aviation history.


Wile the entire collection is impressive, many of the aircraft stand out above the others. One of the first aircraft on display is the Douglass D-558-1 Skystreak, which was the fastest pure jet during 1947. This particular example was the first of three airframes, and set respective speed records at 640.663 mph and 650.796 mph over a 30 kilometer course. The Skylab Command Module is also on display, and visitors can peer inside the three man capsule. To see the environment the crew had to operate in is remarkable; the switches and control are placed overhead, while the crew of three laid prone in side by side seats. The markings visible on the door next to the window allowed the astronauts to manually control the attitude of the capsule with reference to the Earth.


Early era biplanes are surprisingly well represented at the NMNA. The museum has a replica of the Curtiss A-1 Triad, the very first Naval aircraft, as well as a Thomas-Morse Scout, Nieuport 28, Curtiss MF, NAF TS-1, F6C-1 Hawk, and a plethora of others. On the day of my visit, people were particularly interested in the F9C Sparrowhawk, a unique biplane fighter that latched on to the bottom of the rigid dirigibles of the mid 1930's. A Sopwith Camel, F7C Seahawk, Boeing F4B-4 and Hanriot HD-1 round out the early fighter display.


As aviation technology advanced through the 1920's and 1930's, wood, fabric and the second wing were in their twilight. This colorful era saw aircraft design grow by leaps and bounds. Grumman, in their quest for the ultimate carrier-borne fighter, had numerous designs on the Navy register. Their FF-1 was the first fighter to have retractable undercarriage and enclosed canopies, and an example of that aircraft is on display. Other aircraft of the period on view include the F3F, J2F Duck, GB-2 Traveler (Staggerwing), J4F-1 Widgeon, Cessna JRC, JRF Goose and a gondola car from a K-Ship blimp.


As one walks through the displays, the sense of greatness and history is tangible. Kiosks have audio and video presentations that add color to the aircraft, and many of the aircraft are displayed in vignettes such as carrier maintenance bays, island airfields, carrier decks and in flight poses. Overall, the environment captures ones imagination, but does not overload them. On the walls are various paintings, informative displays and aircraft parts.


Naval aviation is perhaps best remembered for its contribution to the victory over Japan during World War II; and this is where the museum's collection really shines. Walk right up to a Japanese Zero or the restored George fighter. Right next door is an F4U-4 Corsair, a Hellcat, a Wildcat and a Bearcat. Not far off is a rare F7F-1 Tigercat. Modelers and enthusiasts can explore most of the aircraft at close range, and if you can preset your camera, hold it up for some cockpit photos. (Autofocus and Autoflash are wonderful things!) 


Other famous WWII aircraft nearby include a SBD Dauntless, restored with exacting detail - right down
to the gunner's twin .30's and ammo belts. In storage, the museum also possesses an ultra-rare SBD-1, the seventeenth aircraft off the Douglas production line. Several combat-veteran airframes from Midway, Guadalcanal and Operation Torch are also in storage. Amazingly, the museum was able to recover a number of aircraft that had been ditched during training exercises on Lake Michigan in the '40's. The cold, fresh water of the lake had preserved the aircraft in the same state since that time. Examples of recovered aircraft include the aforementioned Dauntless' (14 examples in all are owned by the museum), 14 different F4F Wildcat's of different marks, and the last SB2U Vindicator to come off the assembly line. (This is the only example left in the world and has been impeccably restored.)


At the end of WWII, props and jets shared the landscape aboard the carriers and runways. Naval Aviators became acquainted with the early turbine engines and their associated spool-up responses. The early jets allowed pilots to fly much faster and higher than before, but at the cost of range and endurance. Not good or bad in comparison to the Corsair, Tigercat and Skyraider; just different. Lockheed's navalized version of the T-33 Shooting Star saw thousands of nuggets earn their wings of gold and graduate on to the F9F Panther, Cougar and F2H Banshee. These early jets were flown into combat over Korea along with their earlier prop relatives. Examples of these early jets are an exciting part of the display and garner a large portion of attention. Other pearls include F-11A Tiger, F4D Skyray, F7U Cutlass, F3D Skynight and a FH-1 Phantom. Each has been restored to excellent display status, and includes cockpit consoles, avionics, ejection seats and gunsights.


With the Korean war a memory, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam were the next mile markers for NAVAIR. Early combatants in Southeast Asia included various helo's and the A-1 Skyraider - the museum's copy being the last Spad to fly a combat mission in US Navy service. Other Vietnam era fast movers on display include the A-4 Skyhawk, A-3 Skywarrior, A-6 Intruder and an F-8 Crusader. The Big Dog - McDonnell Douglas's F-4 Phantom - is also on display in a prominent position. This particular airframe is a MiG killer, having downed a MiG-19 over the North.


More modern strike and fighter aircraft are also displayed at the museum, including a Persian Gulf veteran A-7E Corsair II, an FA-18 in Blue Angel markings, and an F-14 Tomcat. Visitors can walk right up to most of the aircraft and observe ordnance, landing gear and surface details. There are also a number of cockpits on the second floor that once served as procedures trainers or simulators. Visitors are allowed to climb in these and try them on for size, or to remember past experiences. (One note here; it's a bit unfortunate that several of the cockpits have been treated with lexan covers that defeat any chances of photography or having the full experience of that particular cockpit.)


There is no way to list each and every aircraft that the museum has on display or in storage and relate their importance in this space. The list is almost staggering, and hopefully one day, each aircraft can be restored and displayed for all to experience. 


A large part of NAVAIR is their training command, and trainers such as the N3N, N2C-2, N2S, N2T, NR-1, SNJ, T-28, and T-34 are given prominent display in the auditorium area bordering the exterior display area. Other aircraft in the display area include the FJ Fury, PBJ Mitchell, PBY Catalina, OS2U Kingfisher, SB2C Helldiver and a NC-4 flying boat.


Overall, the Museum of Naval Aviation will instill a sense of wonder and excitement in even the most ardent aviation museum enthusiast. Many of us have seen these aircraft before, but the sense of history and continuity of the display gives visitors a real look at the accomplishments by the men and women who designed, built, flew and maintained these aerial weapons. It is no small contribution to our national freedom.


The museum is an outstanding whole-day event for one person or the whole family. Aircraft not on display or stored will be on the flight line, and are viewed via a scheduled bus tour from the front of the museum. There is no entrance fee for the museum or the bus tour, but the IMAX theater is a well-worth-it pay-to-play proposition. If you want more of a physical experience, visitors can also ride a full motion simulator and get the feel for a FA-18 strike mission launched from an aircraft carrier.


Come lunch time, you will definitely want to eat at the Plaque Bar and Grill, located near the modern jet portion of the display. Hundreds, if not thousands of squadron plaques, helmets and trophies decorate the bar and restaurant. The best part is you don't pay for the atmosphere; the food is actually very tasty and filling and prices are very reasonable. There is also a gift shop which carries a wide range of quality items from sweatshirts and T-shirts to posters, art, desk models and books. Bring your credit card.


Overall, the level of professionalism at the Museum of Naval Aviation is very high. The facility meshes history and education with a hands-on experience that people of all ages will enjoy. From youngsters to our elder veterans, everybody takes away an exciting and positive experience. 

Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press. Copyright 2000. All Rights Reserved.

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