Forts, museums and a sky full of stealth fliers secure northwest Florida’s rank in military history.

By Chelle Koster Walton

I could feel trembling in my chest as the first cluster of sleek F/A-18 Hornets took to the air. The roar vibrated the stands, and my very bones, as the Blue Angels went through their maneuvers, shooting straight into the sky and flying near-miss passes like some scene out of Star Wars. I felt it in my chest again as they completed their finale – a welling of pride and patriotism I didn’t know was there.

The stretch from Pensacola east beyond Apalachicola has had military in its genes since Florida’s Spanish governor began building fortifications here in 1679. Thank long stretches of shoreline and coveted harbors for that.

In fact, Pensacola’s harbor played a pivotal role in the Civil War. (I learned all about it on a back-lot trolley tour of Pensacola’s National Museum of Naval Aviation.) Our tour guide, a retired Marine named Dave, explained how Confederate troops occupied Fort McRee on Perdido Key and Fort Barrancas, today a part of Pensacola’s Naval Air Station (NAS) complex. Union forces made their headquarters across Pensacola Bay at Fort Pickens, now a national park and part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches in waves of dunesy sands.

These blinding-white beaches remain undeveloped in part due to the area’s military presence: Panama City’s Tyndall and Fort Walton Beach’s Eglin Field Air Force bases face pristine quartz sands sidling Gulf of Mexico waters the color and clarity of rare gems.

Pensacola NAS is home to both the Blue Angels, the National Flight Academy (an aviation-themed education program for 7-12 graders) and the aforementioned National Museum of Naval Aviation. Military folk and civvies alike flock here for more than the trolley tour. Admire such legendary aircraft as an F-14 Tomcat, much like the one Tom Cruise piloted in "Top Gun." Then, stop for lunch at the Cubi Bar Café, decorated with memorabilia from an officers’ club in the Philippines.

Divers can explore the hull of the Korean War aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, laid to rest on Pensacola’s Gulf floor. Eglin AFB opens its Armament Museum to the public, displaying weapons, missiles and bomber aircraft from World War II to modern times. And the quiet fishing town of Carrabelle hosts the inconspicuous Camp Gordon Johnston Museum, which recalls the area’s significance to amphibious soldiers training for World War II’s D-Day invasion.

In a double-edged tactic, visitors can find plenty of opportunity to experience northwest Florida’s nature and military heritage simultaneously. Crooked Island near Mexico Beach is classified top-secret among locals – an out-of-the way beach that is part of Tyndall AFB but open to in-the-know beach-goers. The Northwest Florida Greenway, a military and conservation corridor connecting Eglin AFB to adjacent Apalachicola National Forest, will preserve forest ecology.

These peaceful forests and shores seem to belie northwest Florida’s role in defending our freedom. But as I walked the beach, reminders sounded on behalf of the region’s military heritage. As jets momentarily shattered the quiet, I glanced up at the sky and felt, in no small way, entirely proud.

Catching the Angels

From late March to early November, the Blue Angels hold about 50 practices open to the public at Pensacola NAS. The team visits the museum to answer questions and sign autographs after Wednesday practices.

The homecoming and farewell demos are the big events, surrounded by fanfare and activity throughout the community. During the same months, the Blue Angels travel the country to appear in more than 60 air shows, including the Pensacola Beach Air Show in July.