The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

[VIST] The National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola

U.S. Naval Aviation got its start on May 8, 1911, when the U.S. Navy ordered its very first aircraft, the Curtiss A-1 Triad. NAS Pensacola got its start in January 1914, when the first naval aviators arrived on its shores. And the National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola was founded in 1962 and has resided in its current location since 1974. 

Its mission is “to select, collect, preserve and display” appropriate memorabilia representative of the development, growth, and historic heritage of United States Naval Aviation, including the United States Marine Corp and United States Coast Guard. 

The museum has nearly 1,000 aircraft in its collection, with approximately 150 on display. The rest are on loan to other museums in the United States as well as six foreign countries. The museum also has another 60 or so aircraft stored on the base flightline awaiting restoration. The museum has a massive collection of over 34,000 artifacts, with only about 9 percent of them on display. 

The museum’s main building is huge, but not huge enough to house the museum’s collection, so the original building was expanded and the Hangar Bay One building was added later.

As you enter the World War I area, you come upon the U.S. Navy/Curtiss NC-4 Flying Boat display. In 1919, the NC-4 became the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic. It has been on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum since 1975. A rare Messerschmitt 262 “Schwalbe” sits in the WWII section. 

The Schwalbe was the world’s first operational jet fighter. Despite its brief time in combat with a debut in August 1944, the Schwalbe proved superior to any allied fighter at the time. This particular aircraft had been converted to a two-seat aircraft. It was captured in Schleswig, Germany, and Army Air Corps pilots made familiarization flights in the Schwalbe prior to it being shipped to the Naval Air Test Center Patuxent River Maryland for evaluation. It arrived at the museum in 2010.

A few of the aircraft displayed at the museum are what can be described as mistakes. The F7U Cutlass manufactured by Chance Vought aircraft of F4U Corsair fame is one of them. 

Vought F7U “Cutlass.” The F7U was an awful design and responsible for the deaths of four Vought Test Pilots and 21 U.S. Navy Pilots. The aircraft served one cruise aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard and was retired from service.

The Cutlass was a hot mess, essentially a tailless, swept wing fighter that was underpowered with many design issues including a long-nose wheel strut that tended to collapse from the impact of carrier landings and a horrendous safety record. 

A total of 320 were built and over one quarter of the production units built were destroyed in accidents. The “Gutless Cutlass” was responsible for the deaths of four test pilots and 21 U.S. Naval aviators. The Cutlass only served the Navy for about a year before being retired.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy created the TDR-1 Assault Drone. The aircraft was constructed of plywood and aluminum tubing and was capable of delivering a torpedo or 2,000-pound general-purpose bomb. The TDR-1 featured a television guidance system and was essentially the Navy’s first guided missile. The TDR-1 on display here is the only example still in existence.

Hangar Bay One Entrance Featuring the RD45L “Que Sera Sera.” This aircraft equipped with skis attached to its landing gear and JATO bottles to assist takeoff is the first aircraft to land at the South Pole.

The F9F Panther represents a lot of firsts. It was Grumman Aircraft’s first jet-powered fighter. It was the first jet-powered aircraft flown by the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Team. It also scored the first air-to-air shootdown of a jet-powered aircraft in Naval history. Seeing the Panther brings up memories of William Holden flying a Panther in The Bridges at Toko Ri. 

Did you know that Holden was taught by the U.S. Navy how to taxi a Panther for the movie?

The Flying Tigers, aka the “American Volunteer Group,” on exhibit flew over the skies of China, defending them from the Japanese. The group was quite effective and were credited with 296 kills in the period from December 20, 1941, until their disbandment on July 4, 1942.

The Vought F4U Corsair was a phenomenal aircraft credited with shooting down a total of 2,140 Japanese aircraft, giving it a kill ratio of 11:1. The Corsair is immediately recognizable by its inverted gull wing design, needed to accommodate its 13-foot propeller.

The World War II Collection is amazing — everything from trainers to fighters to bombers. The Vought F4U Corsair and the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” once again brought back memories of watching Major “Pappy” Boyington and Japanese Navy Captain Tomio Harachi duking it out over the slot in the Solomon Islands on “Black Sheep Squadron.”

HANGAR BAY ONE

Hangar Bay One features some impressive displays itself. As you enter, Presidential Helicopter Marine One greets you as well as an Apollo Lunar Module. Look up and hanging from above is the first aircraft to land at the South Pole, the R4D-5L “Que Sera Sera,” equipped with ski landing gear and JATO units to help it take off when it got stuck on the ice.

The P-40 was known as the Warhawk in the U.S. and Tomahawk in Great Britain. The Tomahawk displayed here was initially flown by the British Air Force and later delivered to the Soviet Union. It’s now marked up as a replica of the American Volunteer Group, aka “Flying Tigers,” pilot Robert Neale, who had 15 kills.

The Coast Guard Aviation exhibit is a must-see for the Coasties out there. It features Coast Guard aircraft and memorabilia, including an HH-52 Seaguard Helicopter that served for over 24 years, logged 13,737 flight hours, completed 800 rescue missions, and saved more than 600 lives.

Some other interesting displays inside Hangar Bay One include the P2V-1 Neptune “Truculent Turtle.” In 1946, this aircraft logged a record setting flight from Perth, Australia, to Columbus, Ohio, flying 11,235 miles in 55 hours and 17 minutes without refueling, a record that stood until 1962.

Lockheed P2V-1 Neptune “Truculent Turtle.” In 1946, the Truculent Turtle logged a record setting flight of 11,235 miles in a time of 55 hours and 17 minutes without refueling.

A Lockheed S-3 Viking, tail #159387, flew combat missions from the Aircraft Carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but its claim to fame occurred on May 1, 2003, when President George W. Bush was a passenger and became the first sitting president to trap onboard an Aircraft Carrier.

Lockheed S-3 “Viking:” This is the S-3 in which President George “Dubya” Bush flew in for his “mission accomplished” carrier landing, the first time a sitting president has ever “trapped” on an aircraft carrier.

A Cessna O-1 “Bird Dog” that landed on the Aircraft Carrier USS Midway during the fall of Saigon is also featured. In 1975, a South Vietnamese Air Force major took off from Con Son Island with his family of six crammed into this aircraft. The major made a pass over the carrier and dropped a note asking permission to land. 

The ship’s captain cleared the deck and had a Vietnamese interpreter come up to the bridge to guide the pilot in. The major was able to land successfully, and now the O-2 is on display here.

THE CUBI BAR CAFE

NAS Cubi Point was constructed on a rugged piece of island in the Philippines. Completed in 1951, the base was a critical asset during the Vietnam war. In September 1992, the Philippine senate voted to push out U.S. Forces from the Island, and Cubi Point was closed. During its years of operation, the Officers Club obtained a large amount of memorabilia such as plaques from the squadrons rotating through Cubi Point. 

When the base was closed, the plaques and memorabilia were shipped to NAS Pensacola. Through the use of photos and personnel who worked at the club, the museum has done an amazing job of recreating the bar area of the original Cubi Point Officers Club. Currently, there are approximately 350 plaques displayed of the overall 1,100 on hand. The Cubi Point Officers Club has been recreated to nearly original condition — not entirely though.

In 1969, the Cubi Cat Shot was created. Located in the basement of the Cubi Point Officers Club, pilots would sit in a mockup of an A-7 Corsair II (actually, it was a dented external fuel tank) and then be released down a track toward a pool of nasty, stagnant water. At the appropriate moment, the pilot had to drop the tailhook and trap the arresting wire. Failure to trap resulted in a bath in the nasty, stagnant water. You may remember that scene from the Vietnam Era film Flight of the Intruder, based on the Cubi Cat Shot. Unfortunately, it was later dismantled and destroyed. 

THE FLIGHTLINE

The NAS Pensacola flightline area behind the museum is filled with aircraft of all types. During our visit, there was a wide range of aircraft such as a PBY Catalina, an F-14 Tomcat, an RA-5C Vigilante, a C-46 Commando, and plenty of others. 

Grumman F-14 “Tomcat,” the Navy’s primary fighter aircraft for over 25 years. Combined with the AIM-54 Phoenix missile, which could engage targets at a range of 195 miles, it was a formidable weapons system.

All of these aircraft are destined for display either in Pensacola or loaned out to other museums in the U.S. and abroad after restoration — restorations that are completed by an army of volunteers. 

BLUE ANGELS ATRIUM

NAS Pensacola is the home base for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels Aerial Demonstration Team. Formed in 1946, the Blue Angels have flown everything from Hellcats to Hornets. In the main building, you’ll find the Blue Angels Atrium. The team flew the A-4 Skyhawk from 1974 to 1986, and the display of 4 Skyhawks hanging from the ceiling in formation is incredible.

Blue Angels practice session

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a Blue Angels team practice session. When they’re not on the road, NAS Pensacola is where they practice. You’ll see a show narrated by a Naval Aviator who’ll give you the lowdown on flying a Hornet.

The National Naval Aviation Museum is an absolute must for anyone interested in the history of Naval Aviation. It’s the premier collection of U.S. Naval Aircraft, and you’d need an entire book to truly do it justice; in fact, there’s already one available in the gift shop. Unfortunately, since the terrorist attack on NAS Pensacola in 2019, the museum has been closed to the public. 

Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star

Civilians can only visit as guests of a Department of Defense ID card holder and must be enrolled in the Trusted Traveler program. When it opens to the public again, you should definitely visit. 

CONTACT INFORMATION

  • ADDRESS: 1750 Radford Blvd. Naval Air Station Pensacola, FL 32508
  • PHONE: 800-327-5002
  • HOURS: Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Currently restricted to Department of Defense ID cardholders only and their guests who are enrolled in the Trusted Traveler program.
  • ADMISSION: Free admission and parking

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