Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels, the United States Flight Demonstration Squadron. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to meet with Blue Angels pilots while shooting our show in Pensacola. First, my girls and I toured the National Naval Aviation Museum, which is situated on the Naval Air Station, the Cradle of Naval Aviation, and the home base for the Blue Angels. We attended an autograph session with Blue Angels pilots, which is open to the public for FREE at the National Naval Aviation Museum. Then I had the chance to interview two pilots and learn more about the Blue Angels’ mission and get a behind the scenes look at some of the planes. To round out our visit, we got a VIP tour of the National Flight Academy, the world’s largest simulated aircraft carrier, located next to the National Naval Aviation Museum. I’m excited to share what we learned!
National Naval Aviation Museum
You can easily spend an entire day at the National Naval Aviation Museum. There are over 150 aircraft that have been restored and placed on display throughout the museum. There are several planes and replicas for kids to explore and my girls had fun climbing inside to check them out for themselves.
While the kids had fun exploring Hangar Bay One, I took a tour with Hill Goodspeed who is the Historian and Artifacts Collections Manager for the National Naval Aviation Museum. Hill explained that visitors can learn about how aviation technology has evolved over the years. Our episode in Pensacola will give you a glimpse of all that is offered, but take it from me; it is well worth the visit.
In addition to the planes, there are uniforms and artifacts displayed throughout the museum. Seeing displays like this, in my opinion, helps children connect with what they learn in school. So even if your kids aren’t necessarily huge aviation buffs, the experience interacting with the planes and displays may have a great effect on how they connect with their classroom learning. You might even want to time a visit to the National Naval Aviation Museum to coincide with their history lessons topics to help your kids have those “aha moments.”
While entrance to the museum is free, you do need to pay a fee to experience the flight simulators and the IMAX movie experience, which are a lot of fun for the whole family. We tried the Blue Angels X4D experience…you really feel like you are flying like a Blue Angel!
Meet & Greet with Angels
With their home base at the Naval Air Station (NAS), the Blue Angels perform practice shows most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Practices usually start around 11:30 a.m. CST and last just over an hour. Admission to the practice is free and open to the public. Keep in mind that practices are dependent on weather conditions and maintenance updates so I highly recommend checking the Blue Angels website for their schedule and practice updates. Sometimes a decision is made at the last minute to cancel practice flights. The National Naval Aviation Museum provides more helpful information on their website.
If you plan to visit on a Wednesday, your family may have the thrill to meet with Blue Angels pilots and get their autographs. Check their schedule though…autograph sessions follow MOST Wednesday practices, but not all. The autograph sessions are held inside the National Naval Aviation Museum. Bring an autograph book and a Sharpie marker with you as well as a camera to document the experience!
One-on-One Interview with Two Blue Angels Pilots
We had to arrange an interview with Blue Angels pilots well in advance of us arriving to Pensacola to shoot our show. Our crew went through extensive background checks and we were excited to be granted permission to interview two Blue Angels pilots, Lcdr John Hiltz and Lt Mark Tedrow. We started our visit in the Blue Angels’ offices where we had some initial questions answered and then we were escorted to the flight line.
First, I met with Lcdr Hiltz who is incredibly tall! He explained that it took “good bit of discipline and a lot of perseverance” to become a Blue Angel and that every pilot is hand selected for the opportunity to become part of the squadron. Lcdr Hiltz also shared that it was a dream of his to become a Blue Angel ever since he was a little boy. See, dreams can come true!
I was then introduced to Lt Tedrow (another very tall man!) who explained that the pilots maneuver their planes within 18 inches of each other during performances. Yes, 18 inches! Each pilot is assigned to a plane and their name is written on the side. They practice maneuvers over and over again until they are perfected and each performance is choreographed. After the interview, Lt Tedrow took a picture with our crew. Both pilots were wonderful representatives of the Blue Angels’ mission to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. It was an honor to meet them.
National Flight Academy
Our final adventure at the Naval Air Station was a visit to the National Flight Academy, which is a four-story virtual aircraft carrier called Ambition. As we walked into the building, we immediately felt like we were on a real ship complete with a galley, mess deck and crew quarters!
We learned that the Ambition hosts students grades 7-12 for spring and summer overnight camps that last 6 days and are fully immersive. Students are given a mission to complete various challenges during which they must work together, use math and science skills, and problem solve. The idea behind the program is to make learning fun…and I can imagine that they have a lot of success because in the short time we were there, we had a blast!
My daughters were able to try some of the flight simulator equipment and were able to do a few maneuvers. They really enjoyed learning through these hands on activities. Though my girls were too young at the time to experience the Ambition program, there are other programs available including Cruises, which are 3 day programs for kids in 5-12 grade; and one day Adventures available for youth groups such as scouts or other organizations. Saturday Adventure programs are also offered throughout the year for students K-12 grade. You must register as space is limited and usually offered only one Saturday per month so plan accordingly. Topics range from hurricanes to drones to night vision. The girls really like interacting with science, so we’ll have to come back again to try the various programs.
It was impressive to learn that high school juniors and seniors enrolled in the Ambition program can apply for one college credit from the University of West Florida called Engineering Technology Applications in Aviation. You can refer to the UWF website for additional requirements.
The staff at the National Flight Academy mentioned that while students attend the various overnight camps, parents can enjoy the beaches, restaurants and shopping in Pensacola! Families can reunite after camp is over and relax together for the remainder of their vacation in the area. Sounds like fun for everyone!
Some Additional Tips
National Museum of Naval Aviation
• Since the museum is located at the Naval Air Station, you must go through a security gate check in process at the main gateway to the area.
• Visitors 16 years and older must present a valid I.D. to enter the museum.
• Large bags/backpacks are not permitted, but diaper bags, purses, camera bags are OK, but subject to inspection
• Open 9am-5pm year round, but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
• Parking is FREE
• Admission to the museum is FREE, but donations gladly accepted
• Guided Tours of museum are FREE, check times
• Trolley Tours of flight line behind the restoration hangar are FREE. Tickets available at the Information Desk, check tour times.
National Flight Academy
• Scholarships are available to attend the National Flight Academy program, applications are available on their website.
• The facility’s design is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act
• Kids aren’t the only ones who can have fun learning…professional development, corporate team building and teacher training programs are also offered throughout the course of the year.
• The Ambition program is accredited through the American Camp Association.
• Security is provided 24/7 throughout the facility while the Ambition program is in session.