Day Seven Of Our First RV Trip: Naval Aviation Museum and Lighthouse In Pensacola, Florida
Today we headed into Pensacola proper to find the Naval Air Base in order to tour the Naval Aviation Museum, spend a good portion of the day here before then venturing out to the Pensacola Lighthouse for our first ever lighthouse tour. Excitement hung heavy in the air (at least for me) and we began our journey on that confusion known as I-10 West. In and of itself I-10 is okay (except for the apparently constant work being done there) but once you leave it and move south on I-110 all kinds of confusion awaits. Watching the road signs carefully and having Siri, that magical voice in the air who answers questions and supplies directions and the means to maneuver within the city of Pensacola and find our way to our destination. By the way, en route we saw an new kind of Road Kill; at least new to me. Alligator. Yes, a three footer was killed trying to cross the four lane highway the night prior. I've seen possum, raccoon, rabbit, squirrel, deer, horse and such; even a carp (yes, the fish!) once, but this is the first 'gator road kill I've run across (figuratively speaking of course).
For a kid who grew up reading maps and directing my father to various destinations across the country both on the highways and lakes this should have been a breeze.
Well, it wasn't.
Oh, we did okay from 10 to 110 and even down to 98; the problem really began when we left 98 and moved south onto S Navy Blvd. Within a short distance, a "Detour" sign appeared taking us onto 292, also known as the Gulf Beach Highway. No sweat, right?
Wrong, For whatever reason we were then directed onto Fairfield with a "Detour" sign, then Grundy, Mills and onto Sunset which led us right back to Navy Blvd ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BRIDGE!! You see, the detour was for work on the bridge crossing Bayou Grand and we had not crossed it, remaining on the northern side of it still.
We had gone in a big circle and accomplished nothing but time wasted! Siri was mumbling to herself about my incompetence, saying things like "stupid human" and "can't follow simple directions"; I heard her. I shut her off, consulted the mapping system on my phone, set a course and started again from deep in a neighborhood in Pensacola. Back on Gulf Beach Highway moving west, south on Gulf Beach Highway (no, you are not misreading this; the first is 292 while the second is 292A) then onto S Blue Angel Parkway. We finally arrived at a gate featuring men with guns checking each person in the vehicles ahead of us. Pulling out my drivers license I put on a smile and took my turn, telling the man we were there to visit the museum. He smiled and motioned us through with a statement of "Have a good day.". We will Sir!
We drove a little ways and found the museum, spying the lighthouse just before we turned into the parking lot. Then began the search for a parking spot. Up and down row after row finding nothing. This place is packed! Finally we parked in a non-spot far from the entrance on some sandy grass near the edge of the lot. The walk took several minutes to reach the entrance and by now we were ready to get into some air conditioning!
The front of the building had an F-14 Tomcat, the platform the Navy relied on for years mounted in full flight. After snapping a picture or two of it we entered the building proper. Oh my!
Airplanes hung from the three story ceiling everywhere. You had the option of moving either left or right to begin; we went left. Here we found a couple of nose portions of two former airplanes which were painted Blue Angel blue: an F-4 and F-11. Of course Caleb had to get into each of the cockpits and see what it was like in the pilot's seat. From there we saw more, then more and even more family and child friendly situations available for all to partake in. More airplane cockpits ranging from fighters to large transports, even a playground built to resemble a carrier bridge for the kids to clamber around in. And kids were everywhere! It was awesome!
Then it was on to the museum proper and a walk down memory lane detailing seemingly every single type of airplane and more the Navy has ever used. There was another bridge setting, anti-aircraft machine guns, small planes, large planes, planes of every conceivable size and configuration. Propellers and jets, bi-planes and swept wing fighters. Folding wings and swept wings, bombers, fighters, and recon they were all here. I could not wipe the smile from my face, and Caleb was everywhere at once.
And it is all free! Yes, this absolutely wonderful museum is free to everyone to enter. Oh, there are things you can pay for, extras like riding in a simulator which takes you on a Blue Angel performance and things like that but the entrance to the museum itself is free. As we made our way through this wonderful place it was like stepping back through history. The first floor consisted of countless static displays of the many airplanes they have used over the years and on the second level we found a Main Street from a little town in America featuring just about anything you can think of from that time frame of the 1940's or so. A house, drug store, grocery store, barber shop you name it it's here. It was so cool to wander along the "street" and get a glimpse of what our parents and grandparents experienced then.
We saw every conceivable plane the Navy and Marines had utilized over the years including several from my book by James A Michener, Space. A Banshee, which was flown by character Randy Claggett, and F4U Corsair flown by character John Pope and more, so much more. Much like Huntsville, both history and this book came alive for me as I recognized bits and pieces from Michener's wonderful novel about both our Navy and the Space Program.
I have to stop here and and tell Michener and others like him thank you. Thank you for the research and depth of understanding you put into your novels as they bring them to life in a manner that is so real, especially when one visits or knows a bit of what is going on behind the scenes.
We spent hours here, wandering in and around, up and down the exhibits. Caleb got really excited when I took him to an exhibit featuring that venerable old carrier the Enterprise. You see, much like me he is a fan of Star Trek, beginning with the original series. This is his favorite as he refuses to watch any other sequel to it although he does enjoy the new movies. We are going to see the newest. Star Trek Beyond this weekend and are as excited as can be; but to stand there understanding where the USS Enterprise in the show came from, why that name played such a part in America's history was something he had not expected and was thrilled beyond belief to know it wasn't something made up, it was real. He made his way through an exhibit designed to show life on the carrier, how small the bunks were, the head and more and the smile never left his face.
As we made our way back downstairs we found a formation of A-4's flying over our head suspended from the ceiling. This was a full sized set of former Blue Angel aircraft in full flight. Oh man, you felt like you were right in the middle of them as they flew by at top speed! This was a popular exhibit and there were a lot of people posing for and taking pictures here.
We left this area and headed for another building where we found even more exhibits to enjoy. An F-14, a former Marine helicopter used for transporting the President, even some Coast Guard items. And there was a simulator we had to try out. A 4D Blue Angels simulator built to house some twenty or more people at one time. We paid our $7 and sat down. We put our 3D glasses on and waited. The screen came up, the engines roared and wind blew in our faces as we leapt off the ground in formation with the other F-18 Hornets, the current platform used by the Blue Angels. Then we were cavorting across the skies, twisting and turning roaring up before turning towards the earth once more all without ever leaving our seats or getting air-sick! All to soon it was over and we were turning in our glasses and exiting. But boy was it fun while it lasted!!
Finally it was time to leave and go visit the lighthouse across the street. We drove the few yards to enter the parking lot for it, paid our fees and listened to the gentleman who supplied the instructions for climbing the spiral staircase to the heavens. Stay close to the outside and hold onto the railing; if someone is coming down leave the railing and go to the inner portion to allow them to use the railing; stop and rest occasionally for it is a long, long way up; enjoy the sight but if someone else comes up to the top don't overstay your welcome and come back down. Okay, we understand.
This shouldn't be too much of a walk or climb, right? After all, we went on an almost five mile hike through the wilds of Arkansas last summer, even getting pursued by a bear once, in the rain and heat to see a cave; this is a breeze.
Oh hell no it ain't! One hundred and seventy eight steps straight up in a circle, the inner tower probably well over a hundred degrees and no wind or breeze except once every fifty stairs or so. We would climb, stop and rest in front of a window, climb, rest, climb, rest, move over to allow others to pass, climb, rest and finally, FINALLY we were there. A few more steps and...
WHAT A VIEW!! The city of Pensacola laid beneath us to the East, the Gulf of Mexico to the South, Naval Base behind us, and virtually no end to what we could see from this height. The breeze cooled our sweaty faces and necks, drying the perspiration from our hair and bodies, even giving a chill in this heat, although I am unsure if this was due to the temperature difference or the view. It was amazing!
Then it was time to descend and traverse the stairs once more. We then took in the Keeper's House, all three floors of it, the gift shop and finally, weary from the day's exertions, back to our SUV.
We decided to visit Big Lagoon State Park and its beach, but once there found it unappealing and tight with a recent fire destroying some of the vegetation. From there we went to Perdido Key State Park and its white sandy beaches. We stayed here for a while but we were all tired and decided to head back to the trailer, intending to get there before dark. We didn't quite make it.
We collapsed tired but happy at the day and our adventures. Tomorrow would be our final day here and we decided to visit the Pensacola Pier and see first hand the beach we had been watching for months now. Sleep now children, and dream of the whitest sand you have ever seen, with waves rolling in to crash onto the shores. Sleep.