Travel Log: Wings of Gold, Part 2

(Niceville, Florida; June 19, 2021) – The United States Navy is attracted by the same warm, sun-washed weather and smooth beaches of Florida that lures tourists to the Sunshine State every year.

These environmental conditions led Naval Air Station Pensacola to become the center of naval aviation training, boasting not only a first-rate facility for our fledgling sea-borne aerial warriors, but also one of the largest naval aviation museums in the world. 

The National Naval Aviation Museum’s entry hall immediately transports you into a world of daring sailors and their flying machines.  A larger-than-life statue, ‘The Spirit of Naval Aviation,’ depicts aviators from World War I through Operation Desert Storm swapping stories while a life-sized model of the Navy’s first aircraft, the A-1 Triad, rotates above them, suspended in mid-air.  This museum is so big that I can only offer a glimpse at a few specific exhibits in my effort to demonstrate the wealth of knowledge and adventures to be discovered in its spacious buildings.

The story of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 triumph in making the first nonstop and first solo flight across the Atlantic is well known.  However, few people realize the first flight across the Atlantic had been completed by Navy aviators eight years earlier in 1919.  The giant NC-4 flying boat, an antisubmarine plane that came on line too late for World War I, was part of a three-plane flotilla flying the Atlantic in stages.  The other two planes, NC-1 and NC-3, failed to complete the crossing due to damage sustained during the adventure, but the NC-4 made it, proving aviation could link the Old and New Worlds.

The NC-4 was the first aircraft to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean (May of 1919). The National Naval Aviation Museum was established in 1962, and today has over 150 Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aircraft in its collection. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 23 December 2018)

Today, the NC-4, a giant craft even by modern standards, towers over every other plane around it.  An interesting small piece of trivia involving the NC-4 shows just how far and how fast human flight advanced during the 20th century: the NC-4 made the first-ever flight across the Atlantic in 1919; the Apollo 11 spacecraft made the first-ever landing on the Moon in 1969, only 50 years later.

For F-14 Tomcat fans (such as myself), the Grumman FF1 is a definite aircraft to visit.  The first fighter built by Grumman in a line that would ultimately culminate in the world-famous Tomcat, the FF1, nicknamed ‘Fifi,’ introduced three innovations that are now standard features on aircraft today: an all-metal fuselage, fully enclosed cockpit, and retractable landing gear.  Taking wing in 1933, the Fifi was a radically modern-looking plane flying only twenty years after the Wright Brothers inaugurated the air age in a craft of fabric, wood, and wire.

The Grumman FF1, or ‘Fifi,’ began a long line of remarkable aircraft that included the famous World War II F6F Hellcat and culminated in the F-14 Tomcat. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 23 December 2018)

The World War II exhibit is dominated by the full-scale replica of the light carrier USS Cabot’s  (CVL 28) island and flight deck.  Sitting on that flight deck is the only known surviving aircraft to have fought at the Battle of Midway.  Although the United State produced thousands of warplanes, the ones that fought in the war were often worn out by war’s end, and the military disposed of them long before anyone considered their value as historical artifacts.

This makes the existence of the SBD-2 Dauntless dive bomber (Bureau Number, or BuNo, 02601) so amazing.  This remarkable aircraft was on Ford Island the morning of December 7, 1941 (I’m sure that date rings a bell).  Somehow, this aircraft escaped the battle unscathed, despite being in the middle of one of the Japanese forces’ prime targets.

SBD-2 number 02601 then saw combat action flying from USS Lexington (CV 2) against the Japanese during the raids Admiral Nimitz ordered to harass enemy forces near New Guinea in early 1942.  Again returning from battle unharmed, 02601’s life of adventure fully doubled over when she was transferred to the Marine Corps and sent to help defend Midway during the great battle of June that year. 

The aircraft made an unsuccessful bombing run on the Japanese fleet early in the morning of June 4, 1942.  She came back with a dead rear gunner, over two hundred bullet holes, and only one operating landing gear.  However, despite her lack of overt success, the raid she was part of disrupted the Japanese timetable and rattled the Japanese commander enough that he disregarded the battle plan and began rearming his aircraft to strike what he thought were the carriers that send those dive bombers out against him (he didn’t realize that raid came from Midway Island—the actual target he was ordered to strike).  These two factors gave American carrier forces enough time to locate the Japanese carrier fleet and destroy it, thus strategically turning the tide of the war.

SBD-2 Dauntless Dive Bomber (BUNO 02106); this particular aircraft is veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 23 December 2018)

SBD-2 number 02601 ended her military career like so many of the museum’s treasures—at the bottom of Lake Michigan.  The beat-up aircraft was transferred to training duty over Lake Michigan in 1943.  Ditched in a mishap, she sank out of sight and memory for fifty years.  Recovered and restored by the Naval Aviation Museum, this literal one-of-a-kind veteran of two of the Pacific War’s most devastating battles (one devastating for us; the other devastating for the Japanese) is now one of the museum’s most cherished and priceless artifacts.

Another unique plane (for me, at least, seeing as how I’m a former aerial reconnaissance camera technician myself) is a rare F2H-2P Banshee photo reconnaissance plane.  This version of the venerable F2H Banshee was the Navy’s first jet-powered, carrier-based aerial reconnaissance platform, carrying aloft six cameras in an elongated nose section.  The last F2H-2P left service in 1965.  The museum’s example (BuNo 126673) was found in a children’s park in Vero Beach, Florida, filled with concrete to anchor it in place.  The museum was able to recover and restore her, and she’s one of the few aerial reconnaissance aircraft the museum has on display.

These few examples only scratch the surface of what the museum has to offer.  You could write an entire book on this facility, and you will still fail to catalogue all of the heritage protected under this museum’s sun-soaked roof.  The stories here are not confined just to men or to World War II.  The museum’s newest exhibit hall, Hangar Bay One, features an extensive exhibit on the history of women in the Navy’s aerial service.  The U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Corps both have several aircraft displayed.  For those who are more inclined to gaze at the stars instead of the endless horizon at sea, the story of the Navy’s contribution to our nation’s space program is also featured quite prominently. 

F2H-2P Banshee (BuNo 126673) photo reconnaissance version of the F2H Banshee. Pensacola, Florida. (Nathanael Miller, 13 June 2021)

Whatever interests you the most, you’ll find it well represented at the Naval Aviation Museum. 

Part 3 of this column will illuminate the story of one particular aircraft—F-14D Tomcat BUNO 161159.  The last Tomcat that ever flew in combat, this bird’s story is closely woven with my own story because I used to work on her during the opening years of the 21st century.

Take some time to research the Naval Aviation Museum and let your imagination soar into that endless blue expanse on wings of gold.  There is a story behind each artifact and airplane, and the men and women who wrote those stories are not so far removed from the men and women pushing the boundaries of aeronautics and space exploration today!

Check out Part 2 of my video about the museum at: https://youtu.be/cyM-x_C85Do

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

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