National Naval Aviation Museum
Thousands of Naval airmen have been trained at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, so it's no surprise that's where you'll find the National Museum of Naval Aviation. While it features the expected flock of outdoor aircraft on display, the museum building contains a number of unusual and fun exhibits. You'll want to get out of the heat anyway.
Visitors can hit the IMAX theater first ("The Magic of Flight"), or dive-bomb right into the exhibit galleries. A squadron of four "Blue Angel" A-4 Skyhawks hangs overhead. Over 200 aircraft are arrayed, a mixture of historic "Dawn of Military Flight" models and the latest sonic boom screamers. It's best to be guided by a naval air vet, who can sort out the high performers from the boondoggle clunkers.
One modern highlight is George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" jet, in which he wore a flight suit and was flown onto an aircraft carrier to announce our military triumph in Iraq (The museum stresses that Bush was just a passenger in the plane). The most important historical display is the NC-4, which flew the very first transatlantic flight in 1919. It's on loan from the Smithsonian, but they say here that they don't intend to ever give it back. But, hey, we're not here for history, exactly...
The good stuff:
Indoor Aircraft Carrier
A life-sized flight deck replica of the USS Cabot dominates one huge gallery, with vintage W.W.II fighter planes arrayed on deck. An antiaircraft turret near the "bow" has been thoughtfully rigged so kids can crank and move it, targeting the museum's 2nd floor displays.
New since our last visit is an extensive simulated lower deck of an aircraft carrier, authentically steel-plated and cramped. Your sense of claustrophobia is magnified by clots of slow-moving seniors and fast-moving kids at every turn.
Welcome to Guadalcanal
Nearby is a replica W.W.II pacific island airbase camp, an assemblage of camouflaged nets and tents, a radio hut, "To-Jo's" barbershop. And that authentic jungle mildew smell.
The jungle opens into a clearing that puts you on Main Street USA, the "Home Front" circa 1943. A soda shoppe, movie theater and other nostalgic storefronts are equipped with antique store collectibles. Hmmm . . . we would've used the space for more aircraft carrier or jungle stuff.
In 1942, two Wildcat fighters disappeared on a training flight over Lake Michigan. They were found and recovered in the 1980s, shipped and set up here in a murkily lit side gallery. You can walk across the simulated lake bottom and examine the wrecks up close, while an informative video tells the tale.
Gallery of Cockpits
A dozen or so chopped off sections of plane -- training cockpits -- are arranged to invite would-be pilots to take the stick. Expect pandemonium on weekends as junior aces clamber from seat to seat while Dads fumble with camcorders. Dials and gauges are protected by childproof plexi.
When Hell was in Session
An exhibit on the American POW experience in Vietnam. There are little artifacts and keepsakes from the Hanoi Hilton, diaries and prisoner clothing. But all tastefully underdone, hardly noticeable next to the mighty air armament. Vietnam is better captured and pondered over at the 1/2 scale Vietnam Memorial wall in Pensacola.
There are many other notable items: an airship gondola, Skylab Command Module, a "Fat Man" atomic bomb replica. For the vets, every military museum must showcase unit patches, insignias, and trophies -- the NMofNA is no different. We liked the stuffed owl mascot, a rallying symbol during crisis at sea, leading in full dress uniform.
The museum restaurant is part of the attraction. The famous Plaque Bar in the Philippines was transplanted here in exact detail after we got kicked out of our base on Cubi Bay. It's now called the Cubi Bar Cafe, and features all the odd junk decorating the original.
Walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with engraved wood plaques. The squadron plaques seem to list every American airman stationed at Cubi and plastered at the Plaque Bar. They have nicknames like "Snort" and "Hawk;" you find yourself scanning hundreds of names and years served as you gobble down a hot dog and a root beer.
Even with all the great sights in the NMofNA, the Cubi Bar best captures the spirit of naval airman on duty in foreign lands, ready to fly and die for freedom -- and free tourist attractions.