Monday, May 14, 2018

A fascination with aviation in Florida's panhandle

If you’ve ever driven along the coast of the Florida panhandle then you know that there is more than one military installation in the western portion of the state. Tyndall, Eglin, Choctaw, Pensacola… on a visit to any one of the big towns you’ll probably see signs directing you to the bases, and you’ll hear a variety of military aircraft flying over on maneuvers and training. However, if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of an airplane you don’t have to wait with a view to the sky; you can just head to one of two aviation museums in the panhandle for an adventure in flight and history!

Air Force Armament Museum, Eglin Air Force Base

On our way from Panama City and St. Andrews State Park to Pensacola we stopped at the Air Force Armament Museum (AFAM) near Destin. Located on Eglin Air Force Base, the AFAM is dedicated solely to the collection, preservation and exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia associated with Air Force Armament and its delivery platforms. From World War I to today's high tech planes and bombs, aviation and history buffs alike can enjoy an extensive collection of aircraft as well as the history and science behind the weaponry and airplanes.

Inside the enormous hall you’ll find four aircraft, cockpit simulators and the museum. Exhibits include the “Early Years” as well as sections on the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars. It was intimidating seeing the missiles and bombs up close, and interesting to see the progression of guns, special ops and other equipment over time.

Outside on the surrounding complex are 30 displays of vintage military aircrafts and other equipment, including the fastest plane ever built - the SR-71 Blackbird. We recognized multiple airplanes from the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom and the Commemorative Air Force Fighters & Bombers tours in Greenville, however there were many airplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles and drones that the kids and I had never seen up close.

The B-17 bomber

The museum is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm, Monday - Saturday (except on federal holidays), and admission to the museum is free. I would suggest exploring the outdoor exhibits in the morning when it is cooler, or on an overcast day, while the museum can offer a reprieve from the Florida sun or something to do on a rainy day.

Air Force Armament Museum website here.

The Sikorsky MH-53

National Naval Aviation Museum, Naval Air Station Pensacola

During our time in Pensacola we spent one day on the Naval Air Station side with stops at the Pensacola Lighthouse, Fort Barrancas, and the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM). The NNAM is enormous, housing more than 150 historic aircraft and an array of exhibits, artwork and memorabilia documenting historic figures and events in Naval Aviation. 350,000 square feet of exhibit space makes it one of the largest aviation museums in the world.

Located just a few miles from the beach where the Navy’s first air station was established in 1914, the Museum is adjacent to Forrest Sherman Field, home to Training Air Wing Six and the Navy’s Blue Angels who can often be seen training overhead.

From the record-setters that explored the South Pole and first crossed oceans, to battle-scarred veterans from Midway to Iraq – NNAM has it all. A 4D Blue Angels Experience, flight simulators and a Naval Aviation Memorial Giant Screen Theater offer additional adventures (for tickets prices see the NNAM website). The boys particularly enjoyed the “Kiddie Hawk” area, modeled to look like the island of an aircraft carrier and featuring items that are found on a real ship.

Admission to NNAM is also free (although this does not include the simulators and theater experiences I mentioned above), and the Museum is open 9am to 5pm daily. It is important to note that visitors 16 years and older must have valid photo identification, and if you don’t possess a Department of Defense ID you must enter and exit the Naval Air Station Pensacola through the West Gate off Blue Angel Parkway. On some days there are special events including Blue Angels visits (there was a naval wedding on the day we visited), so you might want to check out the schedule of events.


While neither museum compared to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in size, they were both among the boys’ favorite destinations on our Florida panhandle trip. From close-up looks at some of coolest airplanes ever made, to the chance to clamber into cockpits – the kids just ate it up. I found the insight into aviation history interesting, although standing next to the first airplane to cross the Atlantic by air (NC-4) or the SBD Dauntless Bureau Number 2106 that survived the Battle of Midway offered its own thrill. There is nothing to make you feel quite as tiny as being in the shade of a B-52!

The historic NC-4

Whatever your reason for heading to Florida’s panhandle, I suggest a visit to one of these two museums. Admission to both sites is free, but the experience – priceless.

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