Tactile History at Naval Aviation Museum

By Scott Spangler on August 22nd, 2018

A lot has changed since I last visited the National Museum of Naval Aviation 46 years ago, when I was a student at the Naval Schools of Photography that once called the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, home. The photo school, and the occupational rating itself, are no more. The Navy merged four jobs—photographer’s mate, illustrator draftsman, lithographer, and journalist—into a new Mass Communication Specialist designation in 2006, and the classic white structure that was its home became the air station’s headquarters. Likewise, time has replaced the museum’s World War II temporary buildings surrounded by the open-air bondage of a dozen or so aircraft (the more delicate examples were inside) with a magnificent structure that should be on the to-visit list of every aviation aficionado.

USN-61But the one important aspect of the museum, the one thing that makes it unique among all others with similar collections, has not changed. Aside from those flying suspended from the ceiling, all but a few of of the airplanes on display are within easy reach of the museum’s visitors. Stanchions stand by some airplanes, but no velvet ropes connect them. They stand disconnected to warn visitors that they are approaching something sharp and/or pointy, and to pay attention. (And learning that the F11F-1 Tiger’s wings folded down was one of the many surprises revealed during my visit.) The Navy clearly expects museum visitors to pay attention and respect the small yellow placards affixed to fuselages that say, “Please Keep Off.”

USN-33Walking through the timeline of naval aviation history is more like wandering through a clean, well-lighted hangar deck than following a prescribed museum maze. And the rewards are many. It is one thing to read that the wingspan of the Curtiss/Naval Aircraft Factory NC-4, which celebrates the centennial of its historic transatlantic flight next year, is 126 feet, and that the wingspan of the Boeing F4B-4, a frontline carrier-borne fighter during the early 1930s  and finished its service as a training airplane in 1941, is 30 feet.

USN-47But nothing puts this disparity in perspective more than seeing the fighter under the wing of the flying boat and comparing the wingtip float to the single-seater’s fuselage. For an even greater “holy crap” moment, walk behind the NC-4 and compare the span of its biplane horizontal tail feathers with the biplane span of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny displayed beneath it. They are almost the same, and the NC-4’s tail looks to have a wider cord. And if you are tall enough, you can peek into the open cockpits. The early biplanes, like the F4B and this Grumman F3F-2, are the most accessible. That tube above the panel that protrudes through the windscreen is the gun sight.

USN-53Contemplating the early years of naval aviation, and looking into the aviators’ working spaces, these were surely robust men who were no bigger than the average 21st century middle schooler. Then look at the NC-4’s tail feathers and remember that pure muscle moved these surfaces by direct connections made by cables, pulleys, and pushrods. In today’s aviation era, where an aviator’s inputs are interpreted by a computer and carried out by some form of power steering, I wonder how today’s aeronauts would adapt. Some, perhaps many, would welcome it, because they would be directly involved in the flight. And when you had to hand-crank the retractable landing gear in the F3F and its single-winged offspring, the F4F Wildcat, the effort was so memorable that pilots didn’t forget to raise or lower the gear.

What made it memorable, said my father, who flew the Wildcat for his carrier qualifications on the USS Wolverine in Lake Michigan, was the crank’s location on the lower right side of the cockpit. It took some practice, he said, to fly with your left hand and make the necessary 28 turns with your right and not go phugoid during the effort. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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2 Responses to “Tactile History at Naval Aviation Museum”

  1. Iron City Says:

    That NC-4 is owned by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and on “long term loan”. Doubt it will be in DC any time soon.

  2. Dale Says:

    The F4F at the Naval museum was originally purchased with only about 8 hours on the clock as surplus shortly after the war by Ken Spiva, who was a naval aviator during WW II. Ken flew it for several years and performed at airshows around the US until the Navy approached him and wanted the plane for the museum. Reportedly, they traded him several larger piston aircraft that he used for firefighting and crop and forest spraying. Ken has gone west now for many years but his brother Carl who was an artillery man in the Pacific theater the same time as my father, is still around and can tell this story in much more detail.

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