Somehow thirty-two years had passed since I first arrived in NAS Pensacola, home of the Blue Angels and the Naval Aviation Schools Command. In those three decades, the stakeholders in Naval Aviation had built a museum just for Naval aircraft. We had 286 miles in front of us, which left us an hour or two in the morning to tour the museum before departing P-cola.
The museum took us from the birth of Naval Aviation with planes made of string, cloth, and birch, through WW1, WW2, Vietnam, and into Desert Storm. We walked briskly through the early history before finding what we were looking for in Hangar One.
Then we walked through my generation of carrier air. The fighter F-14 Tomcat; the anti-submarine S-3 Viking, the airspace control E-2 Hawkeye, the electronic warfare EA6-B Prowler, and the aircraft I had fifteen hundred or so hours in, the all-weather attack A-6E Intruder. For thirty four year, the A-6 Intruder was the backbone of Navy and Marine Corp attack aviation. The Intruder was capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons to target in any weather day or night. The sign read, “When the Intruder’s were inbound to target, there was no place to hide. “
Following the first Gulf War, the Intruder left the fleet while I was finishing my graduate degree at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey. I was devastated. Instead of rolling back into squadron life, I rolled into a doctoral program in aeronautics that defined the next chapter of my work life. I guess things have a way of working out.
A distinguished docent in a stylish Navy blue blazer saw us giving the Intruder a look over and came by to tell us that the Intruder was carrying twenty-two 500 pound GP bombs suspended from the four MERs under the wings, and that this was more bomb dropping capability than any other aircraft in the Navy now or in the past.
I told him that I had carried that exact weapons load out many times, and we did that quick exchange of past tours and dates to place each other. The A-6 Intruder was built to fly close to the ground at high speed and hit a target with precision. That sounds fun enough. Now try doing it at night or in bad weather with no visibility outside the cockpit windows. No one else in the Navy could do that, and the Intruder community took pride in being able to do something so outlandish. Flying 500 mph down a mountain valley in the clouds at 2 am, the radar would provide a Star Wars-like display showing the deadly invisible surrounding terrain. Every once in a while there might be a break in the clouds and the moon would illuminate a mountain ridge above you. You couldn’t help but glance outside and scare yourself, then return to the video display repeating the mantra “it’s just a game: keep the aircraft symbol in the center of the box” in your head to hold panic at bay.
I saw the old plane sitting on the museum floor with its wings folded making room for the other museum aircraft just like on the carrier where every inch of deck space is needed to operate a 24/7 airport with 84 combat aircraft wherever U.S. diplomacy is required.
Back in the day, I was simply concerned with how to quickly operate the wing fold mechanism without breaking it.
Now I saw it as an engineering marvel capable of withstanding the flight loads of a 6.5G turn when extended or halving the deck space of the aircraft when folded.
I could see why the legacy of Naval Aviation wanted their museum. From someone who had lived it, and who had also been through the superb Smithsonian Air and Space museums, this was done perfectly. They had all of the small details right from the ready room with its distinctive chairs, to the flight jackets and helmets on display, to the squadron car donated from a past Prowler squadron. I did feel like I had been transported back 25 years in time, which was quite poignant and left unable to speak for a while. I enjoyed sharing all of the artifacts of my early life with Sheri who only knows me as a college professor. “See,” I said, “I used to be more interesting.”
We kept strolling and the nostalgia slowly passed. We found a Nimitz class aircraft carrier with a classic nearly All-Grumman air wing on display. I attempted to explain the aircraft ballet called carrier flight ops to Sheri, but could not find common ground from which to draw analogies and capture the feel. Living and landing on aircraft carriers just is not like anything else. It made me think of how my astronaut friends must feel every time someone asks them “what’s it feel like to orbit Earth.” You come up with an answer but it hardly answers the question. We were left with “the deck sure is big,” which made me realize that you can never really know something unless you have done it.
As we exited the museum, I was grateful for the life Naval Aviation had and still provides me. I am recharged to inspire the students in my class to head to Pensacola and make their mark. In the 90 minutes we had spent, the parking lot had completely filled. Somehow I had unconsciously parked the Pace Arrow in such a way that even though cars now surrounded it, I had a clear shot at the exit. I think I was bonding with the Tiny House on wheels.