MASTERSON ONLINE: Of Tomcats and Angels

Posted: October 21, 2017 at 3:12 a.m.

This has become my fall for visiting two of the world’s finest national interactive and immersive museums.

Three weeks ago it was off for a day to Springfield and Johnny Morris’ remarkable Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. As billed, that proved to be a spectacular educational sanctuary unlike anyplace else in size and scope.

And just when I thought a place devoted to preserving history and its artifacts coudn’t come close to rivaling what the Bass Pro Shops founder Morris created, I traveled to the Emerald Coast of Florida’s panhandle to experience what several fellas at the coffee group back in Harrison have raved about: The National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola.

After five days in Orange Beach, Ala., we drove 40 minutes east to the museum en route to a grand finale along the sugary white sands of Fort Walton Beach. In this two-story, 350,000-square-foot gulf-side home to the Navy’s Blue Angels, we spent five hours simply trying to absorb all the sights and sounds.

While the museum (with free admission) is dedicated to the Navy and all its contributions to preserving our liberties, we had no idea it would be so vast and and compassing in its scope and detail. There are more than 1,400 exhibits, including at least 150 fully restored airplanes and helicopters used in peace and combat by each military service. Those include my chosen branch as a 19-year-old in the Vietnam era, the U.S. Coast Guard.

It also is interesting that this facility, which opened in 1962, is centered in two enormous adjacent buildings on 37 acres and identical in square footage to Morris’ Springfield museum and aquarium.

Once inside, a uniformed sailor checks your ID and draws a smiley face on the back of your hand as evidence he’d completed his assignment. Then you stand and stare at the enormity of choices spread before you. We started walking toward a seemingly endless array of suspended airplanes in galleries the size of flight hangars. Each plane had an explanatory placard. Free guided tours also are available.

And did we ever learn. For instance, while we’ve all heard of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his solo Atlantic crossing in 1927, I’d never realized that a decade earlier in May 1919, the Navy’s Curtiss NC-4, a dual-winged flying boat with a crew of five, had been the first to cross the Atlantic. The whale-like craft was nearly 69 feet long, had four V-12 engines and a blazing top speed of about 80 miles an hour.

And today the massive creature with an incredible wing span of 126 feet (40 yards), hung directly overhead.

I was awed by the length of the last F-14 Tomcat (the Top Gun jet) fighter in combat on display. This particular plane, with nearly 250 sorties beneath its wings, was the last Tomcat to be retired from warfare operations, according to the attached plaque.

We boarded an exact replica of Marine One, the presidential helicopter compete with a mannequin of Richard Nixon seated inside (the curator clearly has a sense of humor). We watched the stunning seven-minute 4-D film that put us in the cockpit with a Blue Angels pilot as he went through twists, climbs, dives and turns. Then we caught two compelling 45-minute films in the ultra-modern IMAX-styled stadium theater. The first described life aboard an aircraft carrier. The other detailed the D-Day invasion. (They even sold popcorn.)

Jeanetta later climbed into the cockpit of a Blue Angels training jet and was awed by all the myriad knobs, switches and gauges surrounding her. The museum has a dozen or more cockpit trainers for visitors to try. We paid extra to enter a fully encapsulated flight simulator and fly our own jet while seated side-by-side (pull back on the stick to go up).

When our stomachs began growling, we visited the Cubi Bar Cafe, a fully restored version of the Cubi Point Officers Club in the Philippines that served so many aviators headed to and from foreign military conflicts between 1956 and 1992.

While I was impressed with the cozy ambiance created by the hundreds of original ornate plaques by passing squadrons decorating the cafe, I was even more appreciative of the guacamole and tuna sandwich.

Afterwards we continued to wander, discovering one fascinating aerial artifact after another. On the second floor, the museum features an interactive virtual experience on the deck of a carrier. That feature is said to be among the most popular attractions. I sought out the area devoted to the Coast Guard, occupying one corner, which featured several restored aircraft and described how its rescue helicopters have evolved over the decades.

Unfortunately, we weren’t there on one of the two days each week when the Blue Angels practice overhead. That’s another huge draw for this special place. The brochure said the five pilots often return to mingle in the crowd and sign autographs.

The fact is, this place is far too expansive to describe all that we saw and experienced even after five hours. So why don’t I just give the Navy’s museum a big thumbs up as I taxi onto the carrier deck to the backdrop of “Highway to the Danger Zone,” align my Tomcat in the catapult, and launch upward for the breaking emerald waves in nearby Fort Walton Beach.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.