Sometimes, the most amazing museums and attractions are in places you'd never expect. Such it is with the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, ranked one of the top 25 museums in the world, and in the top 12 in the U.S.
We came to spend half a day there but learned the hard way when a “Now Hear This” announcement told visitors it was closing at 5 PM that a whole day should be devoted to seeing this fascinating attraction.
More than 150 beautifully restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Aviation are on display inside the Museum's nearly 350,000 square feet of exhibit space and outside on its 37-acre grounds. There are even fighter World War II airplanes from Japan and the very first jet fighter ever flown – an amazing machine built by the Nazis and captured by the U.S. so as to be reverse engineered.
We've visited the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. several times in the past and found the Naval museum in Pensacola to be every bit as fascinating.
The National Naval Aviation Museum’s exhibits provide a close look at the people and events that shaped our history. From vintage uniforms and historic documents displayed in brilliant mahogany display cases, to dioramas that transport visitors to the World War I Western Front, Main Street U.S.A. in 1943, and the depths of Lake Michigan, the exhibits seek to capture the human element of the enduring history of Naval air power.
To really appreciate it, we suggest you tag along with one of the regular – and free – guided tours staffed by volunteers who are experts in Naval Aviation history.
Jennifer and I started out on our own, going from airplane to airplane, display to display, reading the signage and picking up as much as we could by looking. But when we found a tour group and joined it, we were captivated by the history and significance of the displays.
The museum is in two levels. A separate building called Hangar Bay One, has more displays.
In the main museum are flight simulators, an interactive display that puts you on an aircraft carrier's flight deck and a huge IMAX movie theater.
The museum is located on the sprawling grounds of Naval Air Station Pensacola, which serves as the launching point for the flight training of every Naval Aviator, Naval Flight Officer (NFO), and enlisted aircrewman. In addition, approximately 23,000 aviation personnel in aeronautical technical phases of naval operations are trained here.
Because this is a secure and very active military installation, you'll need photo ID to get on the grounds and also again in the museum. But there is no charge to tour the museum.
There is ample and free parking right next to the museum, with a dedicated area for larger RVs.
If you go, try and arrange your visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday. That's because the world-famous Blue Angels are based at Naval Air Station Pensacola, and can be seen practicing over the Museum most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November. Practices typically begin at 11:30 a.m.(Central Time), and last about 55 minutes. Admission to practice is free and open to the public.
The outside viewing area for the Blue Angels practice is located on the Museum Flight Line north of the Museum. Signs are posted to direct visitors to viewing and parking locations, including limited parking for handicapped visitors. Open bleacher seating is available for seating 1,000 people. Chair service is provided at each practice session, a limited quantity of chairs are available for a fee of $3 per chair good for that day’s practice session. Concessions (bottled water, sport drinks, light food and treats) and merchandise are also available.
Chair service, concessions and merchandise are provided by the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and proceeds support the Museum and Foundation programs.
Be sure and use sun protection. And hearing protection is recommended for those people with sensitive hearing. Those awesome jets are LOUD!