NAVAL AVIATION: APPRECIATING 108 YEARS OF AWESOME + ONE BAD ASS MUSEUM


As a former Army Aviator, you might be inclined to believe that I have a certain level of disdain for anything related to the Navy.  If this were a post about the historical football rivalry between our two service academies, your assumptions would be correct (Go ARMY).  On days other than gameday, my feelings towards the Navy are the opposite of what one might expect and, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t give a rat’s fart about inter-service rivalries.  True story.

Rivalries do serve a purpose to some degree.  The inherent competitiveness between branches helps to build espirit and team loyalty and, if nothing else, keeps us from dying of sheer boredom when we’re not engaged in combat.  I must admit, making fun of the other services can be a ton of fun, even if the humor is largely based on wildly inaccurate stereotypes.  It’s a good way to pass the time if and when you get tired of throwing rocks at each other (also fun).

Now that my military service is firmly behind me, I don’t have a thirst for rivalries.  I never really did to start with, but these days I am particularly keen to avoid them.  I am a simple civilian, appreciative of any person who volunteers to answer the call of duty and proudly serve our country with distinction.  Now that I’ve quelled any concerns about my fleeting loyalty, let’s talk about the Navy, their massive and equally impressive flying operation, their world class aviation museum, and the fact that military aviation is pure awesome even if a bit stressful at times.  Send it!

The Beast. An F-14 Tomcat on display at the USNA Museum in Pensacola.

I am fascinated by all forms of aviation, but especially the military kind.  Performing air missions in the most demanding environments requires a combination of incredibly robust equipment, intense and thorough crew training, and a level of attention to detail that most civilian pilots will never witness or experience first hand. There is no such thing as an ‘easy day’ in military aviation and you don’t get ‘days off’ unless you’re on leave or grounded.

If you’re not flying missions, you’re planning.  If you’re not planning, you’re studying.  If you’re not studying, you’re training.  If you’re not training, your working on one of the 10 additional, possibly non-flight related duties that you’ve been assigned to. As if that wasn’t enough, every move you make is hopelessly evaluated with a level of scrutiny that makes even the most demanding marriage seem amateur (and surprisingly bearable). 

Every single detail of any flight you take, down to your control inputs, fuel checks, and radio calls, are mercilessly evaluated and critiqued in the least flattering way possible.  Military aviation isn’t a place for the thin skinned.  Someone needing constant approval or validation to provide buoyancy to their self worth would find their time in this environment awkward and depressing.  Flattery may be a kind gesture but it’s tactically insignificant.  It’s a useless pleasantry.  You’ll get none of it here.

If you’re 3 knots fast on a tactical approach, you’ll hear about it.  1/4 of a rotor disk out of formation position?  You’ll hear about it.  2 seconds late for a commo check.  You’ll definitely hear about it.  The slightest mental error or lapse in performance will be harshly judged and ‘constructively’ criticized as if the free world was on the brink of collapse and the fate of the entire country rested solely on your shoulders (and someday it just might).

Naturally, your unit evaluator won’t hesitate to remind you that your shoulders are quite tiny and barely strong enough to bear the weight of the few basic responsibilities that you’ve been assigned.  You’re not good enough to be here, but he’s gotta work with you because ‘this is the sh*t that the schoolhouse is putting out these days’.  You’ll likely parrot that phrase when it’s your turn to evaluate someone.  Persona non grata, but you deal.  It’s raw treatment, especially for a junior Aviator, but it isn’t without merit. 

Raw Power. Could You Handle It?

Flying is a craft, maybe even an art, and the military expects you to use your excellent training and limited talent (in their eyes of course) to paint the perfect portrait of Mona Lisa.  Repeatedly.  Every single day.  Error Free.  Until you retire.  A lofty but likely expectation due to the volatile and demanding nature of this business.

If flying can be considered an art, then military aviation is the equivalent of the ceiling paintings of the famous Sistine Chapel.  A perfectly imperfect technical masterpiece years in the making and, even well into its golden years, is still without rival.  Naval Aviation is counted among these brilliant masterpieces as it is home to the world’s second largest air force as well as some of the most talented and respected aviators that the world has ever seen.  If you’re ever in doubt, ask one and they’ll be sure to tell you.  Friendly mockery notwithstanding, landing fast jets on moving boats is no joke.  It’s a skill that few military pilots possess and, to my knowledge, one that has eluded even the most skilled civilian pilots.  Street credibility is not something that Naval Aviators lack.  Rightfully so.

Even after receiving the most thorough pilot training on the planet, without an aircraft to fly those pilots would basically be useless pieces of talking wall art that occupy way to much real estate.  Without their incredibly capable machines, pilots are basically like seagulls.  Lazy, seemingly purposeless creatures that spend most of the day squawking and defecating, or pretty much doing any activity other than flying.  You can catch a glimpse of this behavior during the ever so rare ‘weather day’, when meteorological conditions force pilots out of the sky causing them to spend way too much time together, on land, in enclosed spaces.  Feed one at your peril.  We’re thankful for the aircraft engineers and maintainers that keep our aircraft flying so that we might avoid turning these rare occasions into a full blown epidemic.

This is not a toy. The CH-53 Sea Stallion Is Business Only.

Military aircraft are massive, well built tools that must be seen up close to be properly admired and appreciated.  When you see one, you can’t help but marvel at the technical research, engineering, and testing that went into producing each one of these flying beasts. There aren’t many aircraft that are specifically designed to be operated at the absolute limit of their capabilities with the expectation of reliable performance at every edge of the flight envelope.  These helicopters and planes aren’t anything like your grandpap’s old Bonanza, although I hope the military uses that name for something flyable in the not-so-distant future.

Military aircraft are purposely overengineered, overbuilt behemoths ready for whatever application the military deems necessary (as well as the ones it hasn’t quite thought of yet).  Whether it’s launching from the deck of a listing ship in the middle of the pacific ocean or inserting NAVY Seals into a hostile territory for a critical hostage rescue mission in the dead of night, the equipment is expected to operate reliably and predictably while being beaten and abused along the way. Everyone who loves aviation should have the opportunity to see these beautiful machines, especially the American tax payer since you bought them all.

A military aviation museum is the best (and perhaps only) way to closely admire these incredible aircraft as well as the skill it must take to master them, a fact that will become more obvious the more time you spend there.  The U.S. Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida is without question one of the nation’s premier aviation museums and is certainly worth a planned visit, even if you have to travel from another dimension like Missouri or Kansas to get there.  Give yourself at least 3 hours to fully absorb and appreciate the Navy’s excellent 108 year aviation history and 150+ perfectly restored aircraft from Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard service.  I was as surprised as you were that the USCG got the nod.  Kudos to the Navy for not being petty (you see what I did there). 

The museum is has all sorts of interesting attractions, including a full service restaurant and flight simulator rides with full 360 degree motion capability on the upper deck.  I passed on the sim ride since I’m a helicopter pilot by birth and being inverted is blasphemous (honorable mention Aaron Fitzgerald).  You should give it a go and report back with your findings.  My favorite attractions are the very detailed, period specific exhibits whose painstakingly accurate details commands every second of your attention.  They are certainly deserving of it.  Until you can make your way down, here are a few images from our last visit to hold you over.  Although it’s not going anywhere any time soon, you definitely should.  Get to Pensacola when you can. History awaits. Cheers.