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Worth A Short Drive To Visit Navy Aviation Museum

Worth A Short Drive To Visit Navy Aviation Museum

By Asa Newby
    If you were a reader of my column back in the day—or maybe just back in the spring of 2021—you may remember an article where I discussed the "Valiant Air Command," a vintage warplane museum in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida. That article covered many attributes of the museum, but our visit was rushed by the lateness of the day, and we were given just forty-five minutes to literally jog around the property in order to glimpse the highlights of the collection. This left us unsatisfied, and we resolved to return for a closer look in the future.
    That closer look came just last Friday. And it was worth it.
    The "Valiant Air Command," once a branch of the nationwide historic warplane preservation group "Commemorative Air Force" (previously the "Confederate Air Force"), maintains an eclectic and diverse fleet of internationally-sourced airplanes, vehicles, apparatus, uniforms, memorabilia and various other displays that work to form an interpretive experience that is truly exceptional. The quality of their restorations, the knowledge of their volunteer staff, and the sheer amount of get-so-close-you-can-smell-it attitude fostered by the command gives the visitor an experience only to be found at museums of far higher prestige and financial backing; just because it's a lightweight doesn't mean the "Valiant Air Command" doesn't pack a knockout punch!
    The collection of planes maintained at the VAC spans eighty years of flight and military development, from a canvas-covered German Triplane from World War I (painted in the dramatic scheme of the “Red Baron”), to a brutish Dauntless U.S. Navy dive-bomber of World War II fame, to a MiG-15 Russian jet from the Korean War and a freshly-painted hot-rod F-14 Tomcat made a pop-culture icon by the film “Top Gun.” There’s a majestic C-47 cargo plane that fought above the beaches at D-Day, a “Blue Angels” F/A-18 Hornet that still serves aboard our navy’s aircraft carriers, and the world’s only flying F-82 Twin Mustang, a hot-rod Frankenstein of the WWII legend of the same name; it’s for sale, and could be yours for the cool price of $12,000,000.
    There is a strong focus in the collection on jet and Vietnam-era planes such as the F-4 Phantom and the record-setting F-8 Crusader—both Navy jets—but there are plenty of different schools and eras of aircraft design represented as well, such as a classic Wildcat fighter plane from WWII, found at the bottom of Lake Michigan and meticulously restored by the volunteer staff. There are too many more extraordinary planes to list here; you have to see them for yourself.
    What makes the visitor experience truly special, however, is the intentionality of the tour guides to get you as close as possible to the exhibits. Remember that D-Day C-47? That old bird—now named the “Tico Bell”—served not only over Normandy in WWII, but also in the oft-forgotten “Operation Market Garden” (the failed Allied invasion of Holland), and also in the Berlin Airlift of 1947-48. It is interesting to think that said airplane played a part in keeping my grandmother from starving during the Russian occupation. Why share all these details? Because the tour guides give you the opportunity to climb INTO the venerable aircraft, all the way through to the cockpit where the radio operator and navigator sat nearly eighty years ago.
    This is the case with various other exhibits in the VAC's collection; the fact that such historic machines are open for intensive public examination is an experience not to be found in many similar-sized museums. There is even a complete B-52 heavy bomber nose section open for visitors to explore, and this is an experience not to be missed; the sensory input from touching and manipulating such a famous plane's thousands of buttons and toggles is the ultimate hands-on history moment.
    It’s not just planes that you can see and touch, though; Willy’s Jeeps, staff cars, hulking armored “half-track” trucks, Korean War helicopters and even the original nose cone of the pop-culture icon “Memphis Belle” B-17 bomber are all on display and within unrestricted arm’s reach. What more do you want from your vintage warbird museum trip?
    A word of warning: there is a method to enjoy your visit at the Valiant Air Command Museum. Firstly, there is no air conditioning, and the massive hangars are far apart and lack insulation. Pick the first cool day of Fall and wear your walking shoes. Leave yourself plenty of time as well; tours can last up to four hours depending on how much you want to know (we had to ask a lot of questions and wanted to see EVERYTHING), and you don't want to have to jog from exhibit to exhibit. Such cool stuff needs more attention than just a passing glance.
    The VAC Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you want your visit to be extra special, plan to go next April or May, when the museum hosts its air show. No date is provided yet, but keep an eye out at their website, www.valiantaircommand.com, for more information.
    This museum had been on our list to return to for a long time, and we were very pleased to find that it holds up just as well the second time around as the first, particularly if you don’t have to run the whole time! The next closest collection of historic planes of this diverse is in another state, so if you’ve got a patriotic itch to scratch and an empty day on your fun schedule, pop over to Titusville and crawl through a B-52. You’ll be glad you did. Remember your walking shoes and water bottle!