There are 12 “official Navy” museums in the US – and of these, all but one, the US Navy Museum onboard the Washington Navy Yard in Washington DC, are privately funded. This includes the National Museum of Naval Aviation (NMNA) located on NAS Pensacola, FL where I recently spent some time getting re-acquainted with exhibits old and new.

I offer this tidbit of info by way of background for this column’s topic.  Let me state up front that by no means is this a slam on the museum or its leadership. Rather, recognizing the constraint of resources (which, BTW, membership in the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation will help assuage – and yes, I am a member) I would like to offer some perspective and suggestions on some key topics and exhibits I didn’t see, nor, as I understand it, may be in the offering in the near term. In no particular order they are context, Midway, ASW and airborne radar.


The main museum is organized and grouped roughly by epoch. This is a convenient and relatively thrifty way to organize a large number of aircraft in a linear, chronological fashion that is easily assimilated by the general public that may have at best, a tangential understanding or association with Naval Aviation (blue prop fighters = WW2, F-14 Tomcats = Tom Cruise = 1980’s, etc.). Yet if one of the intentions of the Museum is to “… educate young aviators and endow them with a deeper appreciation of their heritage” an effort must be made to put the exhibits into context that merely grouping in epochal clusters fails to accomplish. For example – the Museum has, in my opinion, one of the best collections of fighters from the 1950’s. Reaching back to the final days of WWII and the early attempts at carrier operations with aircraft like the McDonnell FD/FH-1 Phantom, North American FJ Fury and Vought F6U Pirate the decade saw breathtaking advancement into the supersonic, all weather realm that spawned the F-4 Phantom II and F-8 Crusader, two fighters that not only favorably compared with their shore-based counterparts, but in some cases were so superior that in one case, the F-4, it was adopted as a mainline fighter for the Air Force. Yet there is little in the way of placing this evolution into context so that the observer would understand the design and industrial genius behind the path that led to these aircraft (and some of the unintended shortcomings uncovered during the Vietnam War) and their successors. The Phantom and F-14 sit side-by-side in Hangar Bay One – but how did we get from the one to the other? How might the lessons of the aborted F-111B be imparted to today’s acquisition process? In parallel with this major theme are the sub-themes of engines and weapons. Why did the Phantom not have a gun, but the F-8 and F-14 do? (and why doesn’t the F-35C, but the F-35A?).  Similarly – looking at the magnificent (and privately undertaken) restoration of the PB2Y Coronado alongside the equally exquisite PBY Catalina (and the cutaway fuselage underneath), one is prompted to ask why we no longer fly amphibs. Other threads may be followed for multiple topics, some of which we will touch upon later.

In sum – context acts as the hyperlink tying the aircraft exhibited to history and in turn, provides enhanced perspective on its value and associated artifacts displayed around it.


I’ll be brief – but this is another area that demands context and historical perspective. At present, the Midway exhibit consists of a display case with flight suited figures displayed in proximity with period aircraft (notably the earlier highlighted SBD-2, an F4F and a Zero, though this is a post-Midway variant). A video is available to recount the battle, but something else is needed to provide the visitor with an understanding of the vast distances the battle was waged over (and let’s add Coral Sea too) and how this event truly changed the face of naval warfare.


When we think of WWII and Naval Aviation, we almost reflexively think of the fast carrier-led task forces sweeping across the broad expanse of the Pacific, brushing the IJN before it and supporting the amphib forces wresting back control of the islands on the way to the Japanese homeland. And yet, half a world away, another equally vital battle was being fought, in some cases well within sight of our own beaches. It was an epic struggle whose outcome was not pre-ordained and which turned to a large degree on shore- and carrier-based aviation. I speak of the Battle of the North Atlantic waged against the German U-boats operating with some degree of impunity, early on, off our coasts. The development of airborne radar (and later on, other technologies like ESM gear and Magnetic Anomaly Detection, or MAD) was instrumental, when combined with a re-emphasis on TTPs like convoying, in pushing back the U-boats and eventually, ruthlessly hunting them down and killing them. A full range of shore-based aircraft (Lockheed Hudsons, PBY Catalinas, PB4Y Privateers), lighter-than-air and carrier-based aircraft (TBF Avengers, FM-2 Wildcats) expanded an umbrella of protection that pinned down the U-boats, turning the hunter into the hunted. After the war we continued development, building and refining aircraft lke the P2V Neptune, P-3 Orion, AF Guardian, S-2 Tracker and S-3 Viking, deployed from bases near key chokepoints or from carriers (CVS’ and later CV/CVN’s). Joining in this effort were helicopters operating from big decks and small, operating in concert or association with surface ships and our own subs. This highlights one of the signatory features of Naval Aviation as it has evolved over the years – our integrated approach working with other, non-aviation platforms and organizations to achieve a particular mission. It also brings to bear the importance of science, engineering and technology in a mission that is often compared to a chess match as opposed to the sound and fury of the power projection mission.
And again, an opportunity to put Naval Aviation in context for the casual observer.

Airborne Radar

Ok, I admit it – as a former E-2C NFO I am particularly interested in this area, but it is for more than just personal reasons.

As epitomized by projects and programs like CADILLAC and the development of night fighting tactics and capabilities (viz. Enterprise and Air Group TEN), Naval Aviation was at the forefront of cutting edge technology and science. Radar, already showing it’s importance (when properly trained to and employed) in surface actions, was quickly recognized as a critical necessity for the kind of long-range warfare found in the Pacific. It was essential in finding the “needle-in-a-haystack” surfaced or later, snorkeling sub. And in the planed invasion of the Japanese homeland, when the task forces would be faced by waves of the first generation of “smart” cruise missiles (aka kamikaze’s), radar in the form of airborne, long-range early warning radar could give the fleet initial warnings of a raid while it was still over a hundred miles out, giving relief to the beleaguered radar-picket DDs which were already absorbing tremendous blows in the initial waves of attacks as witnessed off Okinawa.

But it wouldn’t end there. Airborne intercept radar, deployed on night fighter versions of the F6F and F4U would go on to more complex systems as seen in the Douglas F3D Skynight which would also serve as the trial platform for a new form of air-to-air weaponry – the AA missile. AEW sets grew in size and power, forming the basis of part of the early DEW line with barrier patrols off our coasts, flown by USN WV-2 Connies. As the threat to the carrier task force grew in speed and numbers, the E-2 Hawkeye arrived and in the form of the E-2C, revolutionized AEW, C2 and Battle Management. In concert with the F-14 and it’s AWG-9 weapons system, and later teaming with Aegis equipped CG and DDG, the concept of integrated air defense, first rolled out with the “rings of steel” during WWII finds it’s form today.

What Next?

Resources (funding and skilled craftsmen) are always a challenge for museums of all stripes – and even more so these past few years.  As such, there is an inevitable rack/stack of benefits received for resources expended that establishes prioritization for utilizing those resources. I understand there is a list making the rounds of aircraft that should receive priority for restoration and exhibit, some of which are at once exceptionally noteworthy as rare examples (e.g., an early “birdcage” F4U Corsair) and others which on the surface, may appear more pedestrian when viewed by themselves, but tell a greater story as part of a larger exhibit.  Many aircraft are in the “back lot” where the former re-work facility still stands and serves as the locale for the volunteer restorers’ work.  Additionally, there are long-range plans for another facility like Hangar Bay One to be added – providing significantly more exhibition space; however that is on the distant horizon.  All of this requires more resources and specifically, more funding.  The Navy provides the “hotel” services (power, etc.) but not for exhibits or restoration.  That comes from individuals like you and me; grants and corporate donations.  And to be blunt, the latter are especially important because of the enormous costs involved in restoration – from location, recovery and transportation of the artifact(s) to storage, restoration and display.  Just ask the A-3 Skywarrior Association folks about the costs involved in restoration and relocation of an EA-3 from Rota to CONUS. (Ed. Note: There is an example of an association doing it right with an active and dedicated membership – SJS)

Along the way there are a stack of laws and regulations, local and above, that must be met and that all adds to the bill.  One example – the EPA laws on airborne HAZMAT figure significantly in the stripping and re-painting of aircraft, especially where the epoxies used in today’s aircraft are concerned. Fold in paint containing lead from older aircraft and you start to get the picture.  Spares for aircraft produced during WWII vary widely in availability because during the war the were acquired in significant abundance for most of the widely produced aircraft, one of the reasons so many DC-3’s (ex-C-47s) and P-51s remain flying or find their way back after many years of neglect.  For others, like an SB2C – they are somewhat less.  Still others, like the F-14, may be non-existent altogether because of national security policies that directed the immediate destruction of the type (save examples sent to museums) because of concerns that spares may find their way to Iranian F-14s.  That means parts must either be fabricated from drawings (if those still exist) or workaround solutions developed to permit exhibit.  The former often calls for skill sets that are disappearing on pace with those who were the young mechs working on these aircraft when they were operational, age and depart this mortal realm.  All the while, those same elements – sun, moisture, heat – that conspired against the aircraft when flying, remain today.  These are but a few of the practical factors that must be accounted for in the rack/stack prioritization.  In essence – what is the greatest good that can be done with the available resources at hand.

This is a a tough call that is made harder by the advocacy groups that naturally spring up around organizations like the Museum and the work it does.  Not to say it is necessarily bad because there are legitimate interests at stake and while some naturally claim a large and vocal constituency, others get lost in the shuffle.   My intention here today is to add the voice of this site to the list of advocates, but also offer a venue to sound out ideas and and reach out to portions of the Naval Aviation community that tend to get lost in the background — all of us “cats and dogs”; and those communities and warfare professions who, while not directly part of Naval Aviation, are still significant participants and partners.  With that in mind and in light of the issues surfaced above, I offer the following:

1.  Stand up an exhibit on integrated air defense and procure an E-2C for display.  Other key aircraft are immediately available (E-1B and EC-121), but the E-2C should serve as the focus of an exhibit built around airborne radar and integrated air and missile defense (IAMD).  Radar, computerized data links, long-range missiles, and integrated operations with surface forces – it is a compelling story that is uniquely maritime in nature and one that should be a centerpiece with aircraft and, yes, some surface components displayed to show their relationships. Perhaps it would include a cutaway E-2C (along the lines of what was done with the cutaway PBY) or, if still available, the old E-2C WST for more of a hands-on approach and a mock-up of a CG CDC with a variety of scenarios being played out.  The role and development of all weather interceptors neatly folds in with, for example, a side-by-side comparison of the radar from an F6F-5N, F3D, F-4 and F-14’s AWG-9 and a display of weapons form the Hellcat’s .50 cal to the AIM-54 Phoenix (and an interactive display showing their effective ranges and threats countered).  Most importantly though, is the story of Project CADILLAC and the parallel development of CICs that needs to be told – and the inclusion of signatory aircraft like the TBM-3W, AD-3W, E-1B, WV-2/EC-121 and of course, an E-2C.  Regarding the latter, all the Group 0’s that served in ground-breaking fashion, including all the conflicts during the latter part of the Cold War and afterwards (ELDORADO CANYON, Grenada, Bosnia, Desert Shield/Storm) are retired now and either serving as gate-guards (except at NAS Norfolk – that was an E-2B with fiberglass implants) flightdeck training aids or sitting in the desert awaiting the scrapper’s torch.  If still around (and I’m researching the BuNo and status), perhaps the E-2C from VAW-125 that ran the mission to capture the hijackers of the Achille Lauro (OPERATION RED HAT) in October 1985 might be one airframe of particular interest.  Such an exhibit would offer significant possibilities for teaming arrangements between industry, individuals and associations like the Hawkeye-Greyhound Association, Surface Navy Association, Northrop-Grumman, etc. in terms of funding, volunteer researchers and restorers (I can think of some former Steeljaws just down the road onboard NAS Pensacola).  It would also avail the Navy History and Heritage Command an opportunity to contribute to a major exhibit outside of the Beltway for an aspect of Naval Aviation that had such wide impact on Fleet operations and tactics over the past 60-odd years and more importantly, has direct and tangible links to efforts ongoing today and in the future.

2.  Stand up an exhibit for ASW.  Like IAMD, ASW as a mission area was one that pressed the edge of the envelope for Naval Aviation’s capabilities.  It also brings a fascinating array of aircraft and display possibilities with the range of fixed-, rotary and lighter-than-air aircraft and blimps.  An example might be to center on an SH-3, S-3 and P-3C – the latter setup as a “walkthrough” exhibit that gives visitors a sense of all that takes place in “the tube.” An interactive display of the globe with all the ASW forces and capabilities employed a the height of the Cold War would serve to tie it all together and provide the necessary context and a link to today’s challenge of ASW in the littorals and re-emerging blue-water ASW threat.  With the DASH form yesterday and BAMS for today, a discussion may be established on the utility and role of un-manned aircraft in the patrol and ASW role.  Similarly for the role of the CVL and later, CVS in ASW in particular, and sea control to a larger degree.

3.  Go digital.  Fixed displays have all sorts of limitations, not least of which come from aging materials and out-dated information.  Printed material fades, wears and limits access by language.  As the numbers of smart mobile devices (phones and tablets) explode in the general populace, why not offer an expanded media opportunity through a local wireless network that is available to those who either chose not to or are simply unable to devote time to a walking tour with one of the (very excellent, BTW) docents.  Think of it as a virtual docent that the user can tailor to their own desires and interests.  For example, the aforementioned transition from the first gen fighters at the close of the 1940s to the Phantom/Crusader at the close of the 50s lends itself very nicely to this sort of convention.  Using online multi-media and data, in concert with the Museum’s up close and personal philosophy of displaying aircraft provides an exceptionally rich visit and opens access to a wider range of visitors.  Add in an ability to tailor and scale prior to your visit (e.g. “I’d like to focus on restored WW2 prop fighters and dive bombers and learn more about their recovery and restoration process”) and I think you start to get the picture and you might just pull in folks that weren’t originally planning on visiting the Museum.

4.  Open the Flightline.  With a number of the larger aircraft left uncovered or others, like the PV-2 Harpoon left outside for otherwise inexplicable reasons, access to the flightline by some means must be established.  Many of us still kicking dust on this mortal realm flew aircraft in the recent and not so recent past and forcing us to view from behind a chainlink fence or the windows of an un-airconditioned bus moving at it’s pace and schedule rather than ours is unacceptable.  Use mobile security walls like those used on temporary road course tracks setup on metropolitan streets if you must, but some way needs to be found to allow pedestrian traffic back to these important aircraft. and maybe (from a safe distance) see the restoration process in action.

There’s more to be sure – the role of Naval Aviation in the PARPRO program is a very compelling story with more aspects still being revealed.  A tie-in with the ongoing MIA location and recovery efforts around the world for our lost aviators is another that comes to mind.  And of course, with next year’s 70th anniversary, something needs to be done to focus and highlight the Midway exhibit.  What I find heartening is that in discussions I’ve had both at the Museum and subsequent, is that those there and in a position to do something “get it” – especially in their grasp of the heritage and trust they hold. Our job, whether as those who have or are currently contributing to the Naval Aviation story or interested associates is to do all we can to aid the Museum in it’s endeavors through our advocacy and support – fiscal and physical.  Write with your concerns and support.  Join the Foundation.  Contribute articles for The Foundation and others.  Where feasible and appropriate, contribute your memorabilia to their collection.

In this, our Centennial, let’s spread the word about the good works underway at our Museum and act like the stakeholders we are supposed to be.

P.S. One other item — folks, NAS Pensacola is the starting point for NFO’s for Basic and Intermediate. It would be *really* nice if the gift shop had a few things with NFO (and NAC) wings beyond a single, solitary t-shirt.  I know of several customers that walked away disappointed recently (*ahem*).  Not a sermon – just a thought… – SJS

Article Series - Centenary of Naval Aviation (1911-2011)

  1. Flightdeck Friday: Smoke and the Battle of Midway
  2. Flightdeck Friday: RF-8 Crusaders and BLUE MOON
  3. Flightdeck Friday: Midway POV – Wade McClusky
  4. Flightdeck Friday: 23 October 1972 and The End of Linebacker I
  5. Former VFP-62 CO and DFC Recipient, CAPT William Ecker, USN-Ret Passes Away
  6. CAPT John E. “Jack” Taylor, USN-Ret.
  7. Flightdeck Friday: USS MACON Added to National Register of Historical Places
  8. Tailhook Association and Association of Naval Aviation
  9. Flightdeck Friday: Speed and Seaplanes – The Curtiss CR-3 and R3C-2
  10. Flightdeck Friday: A Family Remembers a Father, Naval Officer and Former Vigilante B/N
  11. Out of the Box Thinking and Execution 68 Years Ago: The Doolittle Raid
  12. The ENTERPRISE Petition – A Gentle Reminder
  13. USS Enterprise (CVAN/CVN-65) At Fifty
  14. A Golden Anniversary: The Hawkeye At 50
  15. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy
  16. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part II)
  17. Project CADILLAC: The Beginning of AEW in the US Navy (Part III)
  18. Reflections on the E-2 Hawkeye’s 50th Anniversary
  19. An Open Letter to “The 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation Foundation”
  20. U.S. Naval Aviation – 100 Years
  21. Doolittle’s Raiders: Last Surviving Bomber Pilot of WWII Doolittle Raid, Dies at 93
  22. More Naval Aviation Heritage Aircraft (But Still No Hawkeye)
  23. Naval Aviation Centennial: Neptune’s Atomic Trident (1950)
  24. Naval Aviation Centennial: One Astronaut, A Future Astronaut and Reaching for New Heights
  25. Flightdeck Friday Special Edition: The Space Shuttle – Thirty Years of Dreams, Sweat and Tears
  26. Flightdeck Friday – Postings from the Naval Aviation Museum
  27. Saturday Matinee: US Naval Aviation – the First 100 Years
  28. National Museum of Naval Aviation – Some Thoughts and A Call to Action
  29. Flightdeck Friday – 100 Years of Naval Aviation and the USCG
  30. Guest Post: THE U.S. NAVY’S FLEET PROBLEMS OF THE THIRTIES — A Dive Bomber Pilot’s Perspective
  31. This Date in Naval Aviaiton History: Sept 18, 1962 – Changing Designators
  32. Centennial Of Naval Aviation – The Shadow Warriors

1 Comment

  1. Mitch

    Excellent points as well as excellent suggestions on ways the Naval Aviation Museum can fulfill its education mission. I, too, am a member, and have to fight the overall impression I get that the museum was really intended to focus on fighters and fighter pilots, with only a token few exhibits devoted to other equally-important communities within Naval Air.

    Cheers, Mitch

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