In Florida, aviation history gets down-to-earth treatment

January 08, 1995|By Matt Weitz | Matt Weitz,Dallas Morning News

There's an indisputable appeal to aviation relics, an allure born of the combination of history preserved and the dream of flight made manifest.

It's strong enough to make normally reasonable folks drive 20 miles out of their way to stand on cracked tarmac, squint up through the heat at some oil-streaked hulk, nod and say, "Yup, that's a Lockheed Lodestar. An old one, too."

It's also strong enough to gloss over many of the limitations found in aviation museums and collections. Many preserved airframes are retired World War II types -- hot-rod fighters such as the P-51 Mustang or sturdy workhorses such as the B-25 Mitchell or C-47.

Fifty years have left these planes lucky to be around at all. And as a result, even the best air museums lack much focus beyond a particular era.

That's what makes the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., such a treasure-trove -- an aircraft enthusiasts' Louvre. The U.S. Navy was an original owner with nearly unlimited resources for the more than 100 aircraft on display on the museum's 27-acre grounds, and there are dozens of little-known aircraft.

Sure, there may be an F4D Skyray on a post in front of some VFW hall out in the great Midwest somewhere, but it's probably not in showroom shape like the national museum's.

(For those who are wondering, the F4D was the Navy's all-weather interceptor in the late 1950s, and in 1953 it was the first carrier-based aircraft to set a world speed record. If you took the sleek delta-wing airplane and painted it jet black with red pin-striping, it would be perfect for Batman.)

Ringed with aircraft too big for inside display -- big jets and four-engined propeller planes, mammoth flying boats that manage to convey a sense of lumbering even while sitting still -- the museum building still seems huge.

Covering some 250,000 square feet and well over three stories tall, the museum's interior features nests of airplanes backed together on the floor, with more suspended overhead. Grouped according to era, the aircraft are given context by various smaller displays. The faces each era knew -- in their goggles and leather caps, flight suits and sheepskin-lined coats -- look out from glass cases around them.

Providing this context is where the museum shines.

There is a re-creation of a World War II Pacific-theater flight deck, complete with carrier island, signal flags and gun tubs. Across from the F4U Corsairs and F6F Hellcats sits their arch rival, the Mitsubishi A6M2B Zero. Long and elegant as a dragon-fly, the Zero is quite a contrast to the thick, sturdy American planes.

There's the gondola from a K-47 patrol blimp, brought forward from an era in which anti-submarine work wasn't a chip-driven tech fest out of "The Hunt for Red October," but a couple of guys with binoculars flying around rather slowly. As a result, the many-windowed gondola, with its chairs, desks and stove, looks less like a sub killer and more like a cross between a greenhouse and a cheap hotel room.

One of the most impressive things about the museum is that this collection of machinery allows you to perceive broader patterns, connections of design, philosophy and cause.

Because the museum is devoted exclusively to Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviation, the changing role of those services can be seen in the aircraft, as well as the change in America's world role. Domestic politics also pop up; several aircraft represent rivalries between the Army and Navy.

Perhaps the best known of these is the historic P2V-1 Neptune "Truculent Turtle," which in 1946 flew nonstop from Perth, Australia, to Columbus, Ohio, covering the 11,236 miles in 55 hours, 17 minutes -- a record that stood for 16 years. Although a dandy opportunity to test a new machine, the effort had another goal: The Army Air Force was mounting a push in Congress to obtain control of all land-based air operations, and the Navy needed some PR to counter it.

As people have pushed back the limits imposed on them by physics, design has also changed. After World War II, reciprocating engine technology was at its apex, resulting in monsters such as the 25,500-pound Grumman AF Guardian. Forty-three feet long, with a wingspan of almost 61 feet, it seems too big to have just one engine, even if it is one developing 2,400 horsepower.

Anyone who has stayed too long at a cocktail party has had the discussion about whether art and physics are really the same thing; the atrium of the museum provides a breathtaking example of how close the two disciplines can be.

From the atrium's high ceiling hang four A-4 Skyhawks, descending in a diamond formation and painted in the colors of the Navy's Blue Angels. From any angle, they so powerfully pull the viewer into their sense of movement and direction they cease to be airplanes hanging from a ceiling and become something that Alexander Calder might envy.

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