More than 1,000 military pilots and flight officers earn their wings each year in the skies above Pensacola. The National Naval Aviation Museum honors their achievements.

By Beth D'addono

When it comes to cities high on aviation, Pensacola is Top Gun.

Not only is this northwest Florida beach town the place where all naval pilots train, it is home to the impressive National Naval Aviation Museum and the Blue Angels Naval aerobatics team.

"Pensacola’s importance as the cradle of Naval aviation can’t be overstated," said Blue Angel pilot Lt. C.J. Simonsen.

Pensacola’s U.S. Naval Aviation Training Program produces more than 1,000 new pilots and flight officers each year as well as training Air Force navigators, and aviators from around the world.

Pensacola owes its pivotal role in American aviation history to its famous warm climate and sunny skies.

"Just three years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the Navy started experimenting with airplanes," said Pensacola historian and author John Appleyard.

Cloudy skies and chilly temperatures in upstate New York and Annapolis, Md., sent would-be fliers searching for warmer climes, and Pensacola’s 1,000-acre Naval Yard, which dated to before the Civil War, was just the ticket. 

The navy had closed the facility in 1911, the same year it started flying. Aviation training began officially in January 1914, with seven airplanes and a handful of pilots. The rest, as they say, is history.

Experience Pensacola’s high-flying history at the National Naval Aviation Museum, where more than 350,000 square feet of exhibits includes some 150 historic aircraft including World War I biplanes and rare planes like the NC-4, the first to cross the Atlantic. 

Try your hand at Top Gun Air Combat flight simulators, catch an IMAX® film and take a peek at the $50 million Flight Academy, where 7th- to 12th-graders see if they have what it takes to fly. Admission to the museum is free.

Then there are the Angels, whose practice from March through November can be seen from the museum’s viewing area, and every Wednesday, the pilots stop by to answer questions and sign autographs.

The annual Pensacola Beach Air Show is always a huge event. On your smartphone, download the free Blue Angels app to stay in touch with Blues news.

"For every single Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviator, Pensacola is where it starts," said Lt. Simonsen.  "And I can’t think of a more supportive community for us, and for our families. Pensacola is not just a great place to visit; it’s a great place to live."

Q&A with a Blue Angel

Lt. C.J. Simonsen is never happier than when he’s up in the air. The Minnesota native is one of 16 officers who serve with the Blue Angels, the Navy’s elite aerobatic team.

Formed in 1946 to entertain and serve as a recruitment tool, the Pensacola-based squadron flies in six F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, often within 10 feet of each other's wingtips. The Blue Angels fly 70 shows in 35 U.S. cities, entertaining close to 11 million people annually.

Simonsen has more than 2,200 flying hours and 379 carrier-arrested landings, and has earned two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals. caught up with the pilot in Pensacola.

VF: You started your Navy career as a nuclear machinist.  What made you switch to flying?
CJ: Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated with aviation. My dad was a pilot, but I never thought I’d make it. I decided to apply to the Naval Academy and was fortunate enough to get accepted. Out of 1,000 applicants, only 150 become pilots. The next step, if you’re lucky, is training on jets. I became a flight instructor at Oceana and applied to the Blues twice. The second time, I made it.

VF: What surprised you when you joined the team?
CJ: It’s the most fun that I’ve ever had in my life, but also the hardest flying. Before I was on the team, just watching from the ground, it looks awesome, but I figured how hard could it be? It’s way harder than I expected.

VF: What’s the best thing about being a Blue Angel?
CJ: The teamwork. We have an incredible amount of trust in each other, and when we fly an almost perfect show, the feeling is unbelievable.

VF: How hard is flying on your body?
CJ: Because of the way we fly and the position of the control stick, we’re the only tactical jet pilots in the military who don’t wear G-suits. We have to work out six days a week to maintain our stamina. The flying itself is a workout every time we take off.

VF: Are you ever scared?
CJ: I’m never scared, but I get the same feeling every time, the feeling in your stomach you get when you’re up to bat or on your marks running track. But once that canopy comes down, it all goes away and I just focus.

VF: Is recruiting an important part of your job?
CJ: We talk to kids all the time and get them excited about the Navy. We’re an all-volunteer service, so it’s critical for our country that we bring in high-quality individuals all the time.

When you go...

The Blue Angels practice over Naval Air Station Pensacola at 8:30 a.m. during the show season. Head to the National Naval Aviation Museum to watch them practice. And here’s a tip: Climb 177 steps to the top of the Pensacola Lighthouse for the best view in town. Bring your earplugs.