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History of the Museum


The Museum began with the vision of one man who got his first tastes of flying in Pensacola. In 1955, Magruder H. Tuttle, a Navy captain and Chief of Staff to the Commander, Naval Air Basic Training Command, discussed with Captain Bernard M. “Smoke” Strean, USN, his concern that the training curriculum offered the students no exposure to the history of Naval Aviation. As is still the case today, time and budgets were tight, and the essentials of flight training left little surplus.

The pair agreed that the best alternative to yet another class for flight students would be the creation of a small museum commemorating Naval Aviation’s achievements that would instill in young naval aviators a sense of pride in their elite service. They presented the idea to their boss, Vice Admiral Austin K. Doyle, USN, then Chief of Naval Air Training, who additionally saw a public relations benefit to the idea. He forwarded the proposal to the Chief of Naval Operations with his endorsement, but the response from Washington, D.C. was lukewarm. The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations made it clear that such an enterprise would have to come from the command’s own operating funds and that no additional appropriations in funds or personnel could be used for the purpose. Moreover, active duty personnel could not solicit donations to promote an official activity. Captain Tuttle’s idea seemed at an impasse. For the moment, there would be no aviation museum in Pensacola.

Returning to Pensacola after other tours, this time wearing the stars of a rear admiral, Tuttle revisited his idea, approaching Assistant Secretary of the Navy Paul Fay during one of the latter’s visits to Florida and receiving an enthusiastic response. Armed with Fay’s approval, Tuttle finally received a go-ahead for fundraising by active duty personnel in the Pensacola area. Secretary Fay followed with an announcement on 14 December 1962, formally establishing the Naval Aviation Museum and charging it with the selection, collection, preservation and display of appropriate memorabilia representative of the development, growth and heritage of Naval Aviation.


On 8 June 1963, the Naval Aviation Museum opened its doors. Housed in a renovated wood-frame building constructed during World War II, it was a modest start. With a mere 8,500 square feet available for display, the Museum’s first director, Captain James McCurtain, USN, displayed eight aircraft that were rotated periodically with others in storage at varions locations around the naval air station.

The growing collection at Pensacola quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the Museum to display the aircraft, let alone restore them, and storage space became difficult to find. An executive committee was established by the Chief of Naval Operations in March 1964, and at their first meeting the following January, they agreed that the Museum needed to expand to meet the growing demands placed upon it. New construction appeared to be the only practical solution, but again the chief obstacle was funding. 


The answer proved to be a private fundraising corporation. Established on 5 December 1966, the Naval Aviation Museum Association received tax exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Led by retired Admiral Arthur W. Radford, USN (Ret.), a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Association could raise funds in support of the Museum unfettered by restrictions on official Navy activities. The Association contracted with a New York architect, Paul K.Y. Chen, to begin preliminary design on a new Museum building in 1967. In June 1970, Captain Grover Walker, USN, replaced Captain James McCurtain, USN, as director of the Museum, and Radford and Walker reviewed the proposed design for the new facility. Although it appeared modern and stylish, Radford pointed out that it would not lend itself to future expansion. Modifications resulted in a five-phase design, using pre-engineered steel, which could be built in modules over the years. The Naval Aviation Museum Association accepted the design and set about raising funds nationwide to begin construction of Phase I, which would cost $4 million.


Phase I was dedicated and delivered to the Navy on 13 April 1975, debt-free and paid for in full. A column-free structure enclosing 68,000 square feet, the new building was a far cry from the old. Still, only a fraction of the total aircraft collection could be housed inside, with the others stored in hangars along the air station’s seawall or in the open behind the Museum, exposed to the corrosive effects of the Gulf Coast’s salt air and sun.

Nothing builds success like success, and the new Museum, coupled with the inspiring vision for its future, brought in ever-increasing financial support from private individuals and industry. The mission of the Association was expanding, and it was decided to change the organization’s name to the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, Inc. With the new name came a bold, new mission statement: “To foster and perpetuate the Naval Aviation Museum as a medium of informing and educating the public on the important role of United States Naval Aviation and to inspire students undergoing naval flight training to complete the program and become career officers; to inspire young people to develop an interest in Naval Aviation; to serve as a philanthropic corporation in assisting the development and expansion of the facilities of the Naval Aviation Museum; to receive, hold and administer gifts received … in the best interests of the Naval Aviation Museum; and to do any other business, act or thing incidental to and necessary for the accomplishment of the purpose of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation ….”


Under the leadership of former Chief of Naval Operations and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer, USN (Ret.), the Foundation turned its attention to further additions to the Museum’s infrastructure. Phase II, completed in 1980, added appendages to the north, east and west sides of the octagonal floor layout and brought the Museum’s total area to 110,000 square feet, at a cost of $1 million.


Through the efforts of a new generation of Museum and Foundation leaders, including Admiral M.F. “Mickey” Weisner, USN (Ret.), Rear Admiral George M. “Skip” Furlong, USN (Ret.) and the third director, Captain Robert Rasmussen, USN (Ret.), Phase III was successfully completed in 1990. This phase added a second octagonal module to the original of Phase I/II. The modules were joined at their apex by the 75-foot-high Blue Angel Atrium. This addition brought the total space of the Museum to 250,000 square feet at a cost of $10.5 million.

The additional exhibit and work spaces allowed for a more robust approach to acquiring aircraft, and in the late 1980s the Museum became active in the search for and recovery of naval aircraft wherever they could be found. Several rare warbirds emerged from the depths of Lake Michigan and the Pacific Ocean, including the only surviving Vought SB2U Vindicator, now fully restored and on display. Among the other noteworthy aircraft recovered from the depths was a rare SBD-2 Dauntless that participated in the Battle of Midway.


With the creation of a deputy director post in the Museum in 1990, the full-time curatorial staff placed increased emphasis on exhibit designs incorporating personal memorabilia, uniforms, equipment and weapons into the displays of naval aircraft and powerplants. Out of this new approach came diroamas that immersed visitors in bygone eras and settings. “Home Front USA,” “Pacific Air Base” and “The Hangar Bay,” gave visitors an opportunity to walk through a small-town Main Street (circa 1943), a U.S. Marine Corps expeditionary airfield during the Guadalcanal campaign and the hangar bay and below-deck spaces of a World War II aircraft carrier, respectively.

In 1989, the National Naval Aviation Museum Volunteer Organization was established to support the Museum staff. This organization has steadily grown in size and involvement. The docents began conducting guided tours of the Museum in 1990 with overwhelming public response, and it is now considered an indispensable part of the Museum’s public appeal and educational mission. Many of the volunteers are retired or active duty personnel who bring their invaluable experience and time to the Museum, their sea stories and insights bring life to the static displays.

In November 1992, the Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library opened its doors inside the Museum. Staffed by professionals and volunteers, this new facility made accessible thousands of documents and records which for years had accumulated in storage. Over time, the library’s collection has grown to include more than 7,000 volumes, ranging from personal memoirs to aircraft carrier cruisebooks to historical works. The library’s photograph collection includes more than 350,000 images of aircraft, ships, people and historical events. All of this, combined with an extensive collection of letters, manuscripts, technical manuals and diaries, makes the Emil Buehler Naval Aviation Library one of the most complete sources of Naval Aviation information in the country.


Under the leadership of Vice Admiral Jack Fetterman, USN (Ret.) , Phase IIIA, a four-part program costing $13.5 million, began in 1994. This expansion included a new entrance hall, the enormous bronze and marble monument “The Spirit of Naval Aviation” and the Naval Aviation Memorial Giant Screen Theatre. Phase IIIA also brought about the premiere of “The Magic of Flight,” an film created specially for the Museum featuring the Navy’s Blue Angels. The completion of Phase IIIA brought the total area of the Museum to 291,000 square feet.

Achievement in the fields of literature and academia have become hallmarks of the Museum and the Foundation. Since 1987, the Foundation has hosted an annual symposium in Pensacola to promote awareness of Naval Aviation history and to foster discussion of Naval Aviation within the contexts of history and current events. The symposium attracts several thousand visitors each spring and has featured such notable people as astronauts Eugene Cernan, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong, Medal of Honor recipients James Stockdale and Joe Foss, and former President George H.W. Bush. In addition to the panel discussions and social events, the symposium also includes the presentation of two awards sponsored by the Foundation: The R.G. Smith Award for Excellence in Naval Aviation Art and the Arthur W. Radford Award for Excellence in Naval Aviation History and Literature. Additionally, every two years a select group of individuals is enshrined into the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor, which recognizes extraordinary acheivement in Naval Aviation. This pantheon of heroes includes such greats as Patrick Bellinger, Eugene Ely, “Pappy” Boyington, “Butch” O’Hare and John Glenn. 


Another major educational initiative undertaken by the Museum and the Foundation is the creation of the Flight Adventure Deck. Combining interactive displays with a regular staff of public school teachers, the Flight Adventure Deck works hand-in-hand with schools to teach students about gravity, lift, propulsion and a host of other basic principles involved in the science of flight, all in a fun, hands-on atmosphere. While this program has been enormously successful on its own, it has also served as a springboard from which to launch the Foundation’s next, even more ambitious educational initiative.


After spending the first 44 years of its existence as a shore command under the auspices of the Chief of Naval Air Training, the National Naval Aviation Museum opened a new chapter in its history in October 2006 with a realignment that placed it under the administrative control of the Naval Historical Center (now the Navy History and Heritage Command) in Washington, D.C., which serves as the official history program of the United States Navy.


The Foundation’s Phase IV capital campaign culminated in the construction of two new facilities: Hangar Bay One, and the National Flight Academy. The completion of Hangar Bay One added 55,000 square feet of exhibit space to a facility that is already one of the largest of its kind in the world. Opening to the public in 2011, the new structure primarily displays aircraft from the Museum collection that flew during the post-World War II era. Among them is the R4D-5L Skytrain nicknamed “Que Sera Sera” that in 1956 became the first aircraft to land at the South Pole, as well as the P2V-1 Neptune nicknamed the “Truculent Turtle” that in 1946 established a long-distance record during a flight between Perth, Australia, and Columbus, Ohio.

The National Flight Academy (NFA), the Foundation’s latest educational initiative, began classes in 2012. The National Flight Academy is designed to address the serious concerns of declining Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) skills and standards in our country. Aboard Ambition, our landlocked, virtual aircraft carrier, Aviation eXperimental Pilots (7th-12th graders) live within a completely immersive experience for almost an entire week. It is a fun, fast paced, innovative learning concept, teaching a STEM curriculum developed by the University of West Florida, as well as 21st Century Core Competencies of leadership development, peer teaming/cooperative learning, effective communication and public speaking. From the theme park-like sight and sound to premier technology available for students— the experience is unparalleled.


What began as one man’s vision to educate young aviators and endow them with a deeper appreciation of their heritage has evolved over the years into a steadily growing and expanding institution of national significance and of major economic importance to Pensacola. The Museum is now considered the leading tourist attraction between Orlando and New Orleans and one of the top ten attractions in Florida, making Pensacola an ever more popular destination for out-of-town visitors. Through dynamic exhibits, educational initiatives, publications and research, the Museum has far surpassed the concept that fostered it.

The National Naval Aviation Museum and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation share a long and proud history. It is a history of challenges overcome by hard work and determination. Throughout it all, a vision has endured: that the proud history and traditions of Naval Aviation can be preserved for each new generation, and that the honorable men and women who have served our country can continue to offer their strength, zeal and experience to the community.

Published: Tue Nov 08 13:50:05 EST 2016