Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Old Stomping Grounds, NAS Pensacola, FL

Last Thursday I got an early morning text from my buddy over at Warbird Radio, Mr. Matt Jolley. Matt's an aviation aficionado to the extreme. Probably a good thing considering his line of work. Anyway, the essence of his message was that he'd just gotten a call from a friend doing research at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, and would I like to come along for the visit? The train, he said, departed at eight.

I was still in my post-workout nasty wear when I replied around 0730 something to the effect of: "Hell, yeah! I want a ticket on that train!" Hardly showered, I was picked up promptly at eight and we were off for a two hour jaunt to Pensacola, my old Navy stomping grounds from a lifetime ago.

Now, if you've got an interest in aviation history, and specifically Naval aviation history, and you've never been to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, then you've missed the bus to Coolville, USA, Mister. This place is, in a word, amazing, and that word doesn't even come close to doing it justice. Aside from the museum's multitude of displays, its many rare pieces of history and its very polished presentation, it is one of the few museums I've been to where you can actually walk up and touch history. There are few if any ropes to cordon off visitors. For my money, this is the best air museum in the country outside of the Smithsonian, although I may be a bit bias given my resume.

Much has changed since my last trip there many years ago, however. Many new exhibits, an entirely new hanger, and an "academy," whose real purpose I've yet to divine. Other things remain the same. The Cubi Dog comes to mind -- a delectable, beany-brown sauce, sour cream, cheese and chopped onion covered piece of carcinogenic meat known in other circles as a chili dog.

What made this trip super special, though, goes beyond the nostalgia of retracing my past. Matt and I got our own personal tour of the museum with a walking encyclopedia of naval aviation history, Captain Richard Dann, a former Naval aviator and current author of several books devoted to various past warbirds. I learned things about aviation I never knew I didn't know. He's just one of those kind of guys.

The other part of this adventure that added to its cool factor is related to the pictures below. We were honored with a behind the scenes tour of the restoration area of the museum. Okay, forgive me as I take a moment to geek out and go all hyper aviation nerd on you.

Entrance to the restoration area of National Naval Aviation Museum.

You see, when you're in the display area of the museum you get the polished pieces. The ones that have had their flaking paint scraped off and redone or their rust holes drilled out and patched. But when you go to the restoration area, it is an entirely different ball game. Walking through this facility is about as close as I will come to being with some of these old warbirds in their last fatal moments before they and perhaps their crews met perilous ends. Many are as they were recovered, crumpled and encrusted in deposits built up over decades at rest under salty waters.

Piece of a Corsair under renovation. Note how the magnesium reacted with the minerals in the salt water.
They are as they were when they met their demise, and as I walked amongst them goosebumps peppered my flesh as these ghostly warbirds recovered from hallowed grounds all over the world encircled me. Some were found much closer to home, but their stories were no less harrowing. The below pictured Dauntless, recently recovered from Lake Michigan, is a prime example.

Engine, propeller and fuselage of recovered Dauntless located at NAS Pensacola.

Cockpit of recovered Dauntless located at NAS Pensacola.
Matt pointed out, as we poked our heads under the Dauntless fuselage and looked into the rear seat from where the crewman's feet once might have rested, how strange it was that the aircraft could have sustained so much damage and been at the mercy of cold and crushing depths and corrosive waters for so long, and yet we could still look up into the compartment and see the crewman's maplight still dangling from its connection, just as it was when he'd last used it.

Dauntless map light (shown in black and grey center screen) still dangles from connection point.
I could go on and on about this trip and maybe I will later, but for now it's time to get some work done. This trip keeps jumping to the forefront of my mind when I'm trying to write, though, so I figured it needed to get out 'there' or I'd never get any real writing done.

So, there it is. If you're close enough, drive to Pensacola and visit the museum. If not, plan a trip to the Florida Panhandle and then go see it. The beaches in Pensacola are beautiful. It'd make a great vacation spot and an even better excuse to visit the museum. Admission is free and the Cubi Dog comes highly recommended!