PENSACOLA, Fla. — Many who have admired the power and precision behind the synchronized aerobatic maneuvers of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, known as the Blue Angels, have dreamed of taking to the skies in one of those distinctive blue F/A-18 Hornets themselves.
It's possible to do that at the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Pensacola, a historic town at the western tip of the Florida Panhandle.
The world's largest Naval aviation museum turns 50 this year, and as part of the celebration, the film “Fly With the Blues” premiers this fall in the new Blue Angels 4-D Theater. This fully immersive, multisensory flight experience is the closest most will ever come to being in the cockpit of a high-performance strike fighter.
If that's not enough of a thrill, strap yourself in to a two-person MaxFlight 3-D simulator for the ride of your life. Hang on tight as you plunge into a stomach-churning nose-dive and tumble into vertical rolls, emulating the excitement of flying in a Blue Angels airshow.
Like the technology behind the aircraft it exhibits, the museum has come a long way in a half-century. When it opened in 1963 as the Naval Aviation Museum, it exhibited only five aircraft in a humble, wood-frame building. After numerous expansions throughout the decades, the 350,000-square-foot space now houses more than 150 restored aircraft that trace the evolution of U.S. military aviation from its beginnings to present day.
Museum spokeswoman Shelley Ragsdale said it's unlikely that 50 years ago museum founders could have foreseen how much 21st-century technology would enhance the visitor experience.
“The museum has worked hard to bring the history and heritage of naval aviation to life with historic aircraft you can get up close to and touch and with tours guided by veteran pilots that tell it like it was,” Ragsdale said. “But state-of-the-art simulators and a giant screen IMAX really let visitors experience the magic of flight.”
Paradoxically, as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Blue Angels are blue indeed — grounded due to mandatory federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Most of the Blue Angels' show schedule for 2013 was scrapped, and that means fewer practice sessions, a highlight for museum visitors.
The Blue Angels have encountered some unexpected turbulence this year, but clear skies are ahead. Next year they will return to their full air show schedule, delighting fans once again with their signature, six-plane delta formation.
Historic Pensacola Village
Pensacola's aviation history is fascinating, but as the site of one of the nation's oldest European settlements, there are countless historic attractions that predate the dawn of flight by centuries.