Entering the Museum of Naval Aviation at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola is a jaw-dropping experience unlike anything I can recall since the first time I came upon the Grand Canyon. A few steps inside the door, I was mesmerized by the tableau of flying machines.
Four hundred volunteers staff the museum, which I estimate to cover six or seven acres in three buildings, including two Imax theaters.
The museum is busy with people. I notice many single men whose decade matched my own. Men with neat, close-cropped hair and beards. Many wear baseball caps with insignias identifying a ship or a fleet, a squadron or air command.
They walk slowly among the displays and stop, statuelike in their reverence. I wander the museum for hours, stopping to study the brightly painted aircraft as if I were in an art gallery. I study details and features as I try to understand how the artist/engineer accomplished his effects.
For hours I strolled the acreage of display. I paused at the Alameda connection—the aircraft carrier, Hornet, is moored in Alameda Harbor, where I visited her as soon as she was open to the public.
I stopped here and there to learn some anecdote of history.
The Sopwith Camel, made even more famous by Charles Schultz’s Snoopy, is credited with giving us the aviator’s rakish silk scarf.
It seems the engine was lubricated by castor oil and, during flight, a fine mist of this traditional purgative blew back into the face of the pilot. Upon landing, the pilots dashed for the nearest bathroom. Finally, an inventive pilot visited the parachute shop and negotiated for a scarf-length piece of silk to be worn over his nose and mouth—a dashing solution to a dashing problem, eh?
In the sculpture below, depicting from left to right, military aviators from the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Viet Nam, and Desert Storm.
Notice the small dog at the feet of the First World War pilot. In that period of open cockpits, pilots wore long leather coats when flying into the cold of high altitudes. For extra comfort they’d take a small dog up with them to tuck under their coat.
I was, quite simply, transported to a universe I can never know.
Where else could the Blue Angels be frozen so that I could walk into their formation in silent awe?
The Blue Angels acquired their name around the time of one of the first flights over New York City. The commander noticed the name of the Blue Angel Night Club and thought it a good name for the unnamed troupe of flyboys.
In the midst of these elegant machines—these tools of war—designed to inflict unspeakable violence and mayhem, and the young men who lost their innocence flying them, there are also stories of extraordinary courage and bravery.
And moments of humor
The graphic aft on the fuselage reads: “Though my life may end over the South Pacific Ocean, thoughts turn to the many springs gone by and those yet to come.”
War is bad for our planet’s health. My friend, Madelen, came up with the best solution for avoiding war: put grandmothers in charge of the military.
I can’t tell you how many times I felt my heart trying to crawl from my throat—during my wanderabout through the museum and even as I write this.