Story and photos by Del Laughery
Situated on Naval Air Station Pensacola, FL, is a national treasure of approximately 150 aircraft which make up about 15% of the National Naval Aviation Museum’s collection of historically significant Navy and Marine Corps winged artifacts. The remaining 850, or so, are on loan to other museums or safely stored away for a future restoration or simply for lack of room to display them. The world-class facility within which these beautifully displayed aircraft are kept safe for future generations opened late in 1974, with two additions since then in 1980 and 1990, and until December 2019 – when a gunman killed three and injured eight – the Navy provided a publicly accessible roadway onto the base so that civilian visitors could see the collection for themselves. Now, while the museum retains its well-deserved status, with public access removed, visitation is a fraction of what it was before the 2019 incident. On the bright side, though, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is partnering with the Department of the Navy to build a public corridor to not only the museum but also to Barrancas National Cemetery. As of the date of this article in late 2022, the corridor is still in the planning stages with no estimated start or completion dates published.
The museum boasts a great many historically significant aircraft including a MiG-killer F-4 Phantom II and the F-14 Tomcat that flew that type’s last combat mission. Suspended from the ceiling, near the museum entrance, is “Lady Jessie”, an A-4 Skyhawk from Attack Squadron 164 complete with iron bombs and a centerline fuel tank. It’s one of six Skyhawks in the museum’s three-building complex which includes a diamond formation of Blue Angels and another single A-4 painted as LCDR McCain’s aircraft when he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967.
Once fully inside the museum you can take in the collection by era: pre-World War II, World War II, Korean War era, and lastly Vietnam War and Modern era. While it’s impossible to mention all of the notable aircraft in each era, the NC-4 flying boat, an aircraft stemming from a Navy requirement to fly west across the Atlantic and hunt German submarines during WW1, dominates the museum floor surrounded by the retractable-gear Grumman FF-1 and Boeing F4B-4 biplanes. Also part of the museum’s pre-WWII collection is the Ford RR-5 Trimotor, nine of which were operated by the USN and USMC between 1927 and 1935, as are four examples of the fighter aircraft that constituted the frontline combat aircraft as the U.S. hurled toward the attack on Pearl Harbor, the F4F Wildcat.
The museum’s Second World War collection is monumental in its breadth and quality with examples of the Grumman F6F Hellcat, Vought F4U Corsair, Grumman TBM Avenger, Grumman F7F Tigercat, and Grumman F8F Bearcat displayed on a flight deck recreation of the USS Cabot, CVL-28, complete with mock island. In addition there are numerous examples of non-Navy and non-U.S. aircraft of the period such as a B-25 Mitchell, Flying Tigers P-40, Japanese N1K2-J George and A6M Zero, and a German two-seat ME-262. The Zero was obtained by the museum in 1991, and resulted from an assembly of parts from many Zero wrecks at an abandoned airstrip near Bouganville Island, the largest of the Solomon Islands archipelago. More on this subject can be found here: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nnam/explore/collections/aircraft/a/a6m2-zero0.html.
Moving on to the Korean War era, the museum’s collection is equally impressive starting with the Chance Vought F7U Cutlass, an unconventional tailless aircraft that made its first flight in late September, 1948. While innovative in its design, the Cutlass was significantly underpowered by its two Westinghouse J46 turbojets (earing it the nickname Gutless Cutlass), and it also had a well-deserved reputation for trouble following the crash of two of the first 14 production aircraft as well as having a long nose wheel strut that had a habit of collapsing during high-impact carrier landings. On the positive side, Attack Squadron 83 (VA-83) Cutlasses were the first to deploy overseas with the new Sparrow 1 air-to-air missiles aboard USS Intrepid (CVA-11) on March 12, 1953. Other notable examples from the era include F4D Skyray, F9F Cougar, and two of the navalized version of the North American F-86 Sabre, the FJ-2 and FJ-4 Fury. Also present is a stunningly presented MiG-15 in flight above many of the U.S. types.
Finally, Vietnam War and modern-era aircraft depict far more familiar aircraft to the novice visitor. Immediately visible as you walk into this area are the SH-60 SeaHawk and S-3 Viking, both of which sit below the ski-equipped R4D Skytrain “Que Sera Sera”, which made the first South Pole landing, and in front of two of the museum’s three F-14 Tomcats. F-14D, BuNo 161159, logged 224 combat missions over Afghanistan from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and, as noted earlier, also flew the last combat flight made by an F-14. Other aircraft that will grab a visitor’s attention are the SP-5B Marlin flying boat with a Coast Guard HH-52 Seaguard tucked under its left wing, as well as two iconic A-1 Skyraiders, one A-1H – which flew the final attack mission by the type – and one EA-1F.
This article is a very incomplete review of the museum, so I encourage you to keep your finger on the pulse of the FDOT’s effort to restore public access and visit as soon as you are able. Based on my experience you’ll walk from aircraft to aircraft with your mouth agape repeatedly mouthing “Wow”. It’s an experience well worth your time.