Travel Log: Wings of Gold, Part 1

(Niceville, Florida; June 19, 2021) – The United States Navy loves the warm, sun-washed weather and smooth beaches of Florida just as much as the tourists who flock to the Sunshine State every year.

Today known as a vacation destination for nearly any season, Florida’s panhandle attracted the Navy’s attention due to the deep waters of Escambia Bay and year-round mild weather.  The Navy established the Pensacola Navy Yard in 1825, beginning the centuries-old association of the sea service with this ancient town.  Naval Aviation came to Pensacola in 1914, making the base the first naval air station in the Navy—a status that didn’t change until 1935.  Today, Pensacola remains the hub for naval aviation training.

It’s only natural that one of the world’s largest naval aviation museums should have grown up in the naval air station’s fertile, sandy soil as well!

Formally established in 1962 inside an 8,500-foot building left over from the Second World War, the Naval Aviation Museum opened its doors to the public in 1963.  The first aircraft in its collection was one of the dozen experimental ‘Inflatoplanes’ developed by Goodyear in 1956.  You read that correctly; an inflatable airplane.  Designed to be inflated in six minutes and used as a quick-deployable rescue plane dropped behind enemy lines so downed aircrew could inflate it and fly to safety, the Inflatoplane concept never took off.  Its low speed, inability to reach high altitudes above hostile enemy fire, and the obvious dangers of deflation due to damage, sucked the air right out of the concept.

Established in 1962, the National Naval Aviation Museum on board Naval Air Station Pensacola houses more than 150 air and space craft from the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and NASA. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 13 June 2021)

The Inflatoplane didn’t even take flight a display for the Naval Aviation Museum.  Right on the heels of acquiring the Inflatoplane, the fledgling museum quickly acquired other historic aircraft, such as an F8F Bearcat and F9F Panther.  Next to these flashy birds which came from operational missions, any hopes the Inflatoplane had for being displayed were quickly deflated.  The Inflatoplane remains safely in the museum’s collection but has never been exhibited publicly.

Besides, the example the museum acquired has Army markings.  Just saying…

Today the museum is one of the definitive institutions for anyone interested in the high-flying aspects of naval history.  From a life-sized model of the Navy’s first-ever aircraft (the A-1 Triad), to the acquisition of the last F-14D Tomcat to fly in combat (more on this bird in Part 3), to the Apollo and Skylab missions, this place will easily consume your entire day…and you’ll be flying high with excitement the whole time!

I first visited the museum in 1987 as part of a 9th grade field trip from Niceville with my Air Force Junior ROTC class.  The museum was already an impressive facility by then, but it was less than half its present size.  The facility was in one large atrium while displaying numerous aircraft around its grounds.  The museum grew exponentially as its Phase III plans came to fruition in 1990 (the year I graduated high school) with the opening of the Blue Angels Atrium (a ceremonial center underneath four Navy A-4 Skyhawks flown by the Blue Angels) and the World War II exhibit tied up around a full-sized replica of the WWII light carrier USS Cabot’s (CVL 28) island and flight deck.

Interestingly enough for a man who ended up with a career in photojournalism, I didn’t take any photos in the museum until a visit in 1992, five years after my first visit.  The A-1 Triad hung in the center of the main entry area at the time, early aircraft on one side underneath it, jets on the other.  The museum’s further expansion later in 1992 saw a new entry hall erected, and the original entry hall from which I took that 1992 photo became the site of the Cubi Bar Café.

The Cubi Bar Café was originally located on board Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines and known as the Cubi Point Officers Club.  NAS Cubi Point was disestablished in 1992, and the officer’s club’s numerous plaques, statues, and other historic paraphernalia were brought to Pensacola and reconstructed as the Cubi Bar Café.  The café is a great place to take a break for a snack, or to have lunch (try the Mach 1 pulled-pork sandwich!) while surrounded by the elaborate plaques detailing numerous squadron’s histories.

The Cubi Bar Cafe keeps alive the elaborate officers club from the former Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 23 December 2018)

Obtaining unique aircraft with connections to historical events is an enormous challenge for any aviation museum.  Oftentimes the aircraft were simply disposed of when their service life ended as no one was thinking they might be relevant artifacts to future generations.  The Naval Aviation Museum, facing this same daunting challenge, developed a clever strategy to obtain numerous historic aircraft that otherwise would have remained lost at the bottom of what amounts to a North American inland sea.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy operated two small training carriers on Lake Michigan.  This was the only body of water safe from German U-Boats, so thousands of naval aviators cut their aerial teeth off the coast of Chicago.  Many of the planes used were warbirds that had seen combat action in the Pacific, but were too worn out to be of further active service.  As you’re probably guessing, many of these ended up at the bottom of the lake due to mishaps.  The waters of Lake Michigan are deep, dark, cold, and—most importantly—fresh.  The lack of salt, cold temperatures, and darkness combines to create an environment that preserved these aircraft in surprisingly good condition.

The museum even built an exhibit to give visitors an idea of what it was like recovering aircraft from the bottom of the lake.  ‘Sunken Treasures’ features an F4F Wildcat and SBD Dauntless dive bomber in their ‘as found’ condition.  The aircraft are shown in a display creating an illusion the visitor is far underwater, seeing these warbirds on the lake bottom where they lay for nearly 50 years.

‘Sunken Treasures’ allows visitors to get an idea of what many of the museum’s aircraft looked as they sat on the bottom of Lake Michigan for over 50 years. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 23 December 2018)

Part 2 of this 3-part series will provide a virtual tour through some of my favorite exhibits to demonstrate the scope the Naval Aviation Museum’s holdings.  Part 3 will focus on one aircraft in particular—the final F-14D Tomcat to fly in combat…a jet I actually worked on and launched off a flight deck several years earlier.

Pensacola is a worthy city to visit.  The city’s rich history dates back past the early Spanish presence to the Native Americans’ many cultures in the area.  However, take a day to visit the Naval Aviation Museum.  You’ll find stories of thrills, chills, and spills; stories of aviation pioneers soaring across entire oceans on wings of fabric and wire; and stories of desperate aerial combat against impossible odds.  Step inside the exhibit halls and soar on wings of gold with the history of naval aviation!

Check out Part 1 of my video about the museum at: https://youtu.be/0OshiZkKN8w

National Naval Aviation Museum website: https://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/

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