Undiscovered Treasures of the Museum
The National Naval Aviation Museum is the world’s largest naval aviation museum, with aircraft and exhibits covering nearly 350,000 square feet indoors and 37 acres outside. Not surprisingly, it can be hard to see the little things when massive aircraft are surrounding you. We’ve compiled a list of treasured attractions and exhibits that, while often overlooked by Museum visitors, are definitely worthy of being discovered.
1. Sunken Treasures (West Wing)
In 1942, as United States prepared to enter into World War II, Commander Richard F. Whitehead realized that thousands of Navy and Marine Corps aviators would need to be trained and proposed a plan to operate two aircraft carriers, the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable, for training on Lake Michigan. Many of those aircraft were lost in training, but several have been recovered. Some the Museum restored; others we’ve displayed as they were recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan.
2. John Towers Statue (Centennial Square)
Admiral John H. Towers was a naval aviation pioneer who studied under Glenn Curtiss and qualified as a pilot in the Navy’s first airplane, the Curtiss A-1 Seaplane. Towers achieved early naval aviation records for distance and endurance and was instrumental in developing and improving naval aircraft. In 1914, Lieutenant Towers was sent to Pensacola to set up the first naval aviation training unit. He was the first naval aviator to achieve flag rank and a lifelong advocate for naval aviation. Under his leadership, the Navy’s aviation arm grew from 2,000 planes in 1939 to 39,000 in 1942. As part of NAS Pensacola’s 100th Anniversary celebrations, a statue of Admiral Towers was dedicated in Centennial Square.
3. Flight Deck Operations Exhibit (Mezzanine)
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like on the deck of an aircraft carrier, head over to the immersive Virtual Flight Deck Operations exhibit for a briefing on flight deck operations and a simulated flight in a Grumman C-2 Greyhound and landing on the carrier USS John C. Stennis. Once “on board,” you’ll feel the wind blowing across the flight deck, smell the jet fumes and experience the rumble and roar of F/A-18 Hornets catapult launches and traps. Take care if you visit with family, as the giant fans and seat vibrations can be a bit unnerving for small children.
4. Homecoming (Hangar Bay One)
Outside, along the walkway between the Museum’s main building and Hangar Bay One, you’ll find “Homecoming” is a bronze sculpture by Bob Rasmussen, acclaimed artist, retired Navy Captain and former director of our Museum. The life-sized sculpture captures the special moment when service members are welcomed home by their families. The inspiration was a 1999 photograph of the sculptor’s son, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Eric Rasmussen, reuniting with his family after a long deployment.
5. Flight Line Trolley Tour
The Museum offers free 20-minute trolley tours of our Flight Line, featuring unique and historic aircraft on display behind the restoration hangar, including a World War II B-25 Mitchell Bomber used to bomb Tokyo after Pearl Harbor and one of NASA’s zero-gravity astronaut trainers, dubbed the “Vomit Comet.” Trolley tour tickets are available at the Information Desk.
6. Art Gallery (Mezzanine)
Some of the world’s finest aviation art is on display in the Museum’s Art Gallery. View original works by R.G. Smith, Retired Navy Captain R.L. Rasmussen, Stan Stokes, William Phillips, Craig Kodera and many others, including prints from some of the most famous aviation artists.
7. Women in Naval Aviation (Hangar Bay One)
The centerpiece of the exhibit, “From Typewriters to Strike Fighters,” is a video wall on which appear historic images and footage of women in naval service and excerpts of interviews conducted by museum staff members.
Some of the groundbreaking women featured in the video are Chief of Navy Reserve Vice Adm. Robin Braun and Capt. Tami Riley, both members of the first all-female E-2 Hawkeye combat crew; Operation Iraqi Freedom Marine helicopter pilot Capt. Cera Benbow; Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter pilot Lt. Cmdr. Ally Shuler; retired Capt. Judith Neuffer Bruner, the second female to receive her wings; and former Navy jet pilots Jill Nelson and Pat Denkler, the latter the first woman aviator to carrier qualify in a jet aircraft.
Some of the artifacts displayed in the exhibit include original uniforms on loan from the Naval History and Heritage Command, the uniform of one of the 122 flight nurses commissioned during World War II, flight equipment worn by three of the first four designated women naval aviators, including Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey, who became the first woman to receive her wings of gold in February 1974.
8. Vietnam Prisoners of War (Hangar Bay One)
Using photographs and rare artifacts, tells the story of the American POW experience in Southeast Asia, portraying both the hardships of captivity and the joyous return of 591 POWs as part of the 1973 Operation Homecoming. Its centerpiece is a re-creation of a squalid cell in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by those held captive there. Flanking the cell is a vivid collection of personal items, including prison uniforms worn by POWs, the flight helmet shell worn by Senator John McCain when his plane was shot down, and other artifacts and keepsakes.