If I have to build another sandcastle, get splashed in the pool or dig one more hole on the beach, I may just scream (and not for ice cream). I love spending time with my kids, but after two full months of beach, sun, beach, pool, pool, sun, playground, I was looking to get out from under that flaming ball in the sky and get indoors with my men. So I thought, “Aviation Museum!”
Actually, I didn’t. The thought of going to see dusty old planes was slightly less than intriguing for me. I’m a girl. I like pretty, shiny new stuff, preferably with a little glitter thrown in. But I’m a girl with two little boys, and sometimes you gotta take one for the team. So after my editor suggested it, I scooped up my boys, got in the car, blasted the glorious air conditioning and started to drive.
We headed to the only place I know of around these parts where you can find a UN1 Helicopter, a Bird Dog, a PT-17 Stearman, an F-14 Tomcat, an HH-52A Seaguard Helicopter, an A-4 Skyhawk and several more impressive aircrafts all under one roof.
The Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) Aviation Museum in Rio Grande is only about 10 minutes from any place in Cape May. This seriously cuts down on the “are we there yets.” A blessing if you’re a parent. The aircrafts come to the museum through donations and loans and each one has an accompanying sign with the name and a little info so you can really get your geek on.
Let’s rewind a bit: I’ve been to the Aviation Museum for the amazing Feasting on History event held every May where the hangar is emptied to accommodate the 500+ people, tables, food and wine. The space has always been impressive and that’s without any planes in it. It’s big – two football fields in size – and really tall. The hangar doors slide completely open and have rows of windows that let in good light. I’d expect nothing less from the largest wooden hangar east of the Mississippi.
Having been there a few times, I figured I wasn’t the normal newbie and wouldn’t go all “ooh and ahh” over the museum. After we parked and entered the glass door all the way off to the right of the hangar, we walked through the hall and were greeted by old newspaper headlines such as Japan Accepts and old wartime ads like We Can Do It with the iconic woman making a muscle. There were tons of Life Magazine wartime covers to take in too. Anyone interested in World War II and/or aviation will love this place. The NASW was operated by the Navy between 1943 and 1945 to train thousands of Navy pilots and aircrews, so it’s steeped in crucial American history. Today it’s on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places at the National Significance Level.
When we made it through to the main section of the hangar (you have to enter through the gift shop), all three of us stood there for at least 30 seconds as we allowed our brains to process what we were seeing.
Planes and helicopters of all shapes, sizes, and colors, missiles, bombs, and even a Jeep were laid out in front of us in staggering stature. Despite my earlier presumption, there were three voices oohing and ahhing.
It’s almost impossible not to be impressed when you walk into a vast building filled with almost 20 different aircrafts and numerous exhibits. I was even more taken aback since I’ve seen the hangar empty.
After our eyes focused and our brains took hold of the situation, we started to inch toward the aircrafts. Despite the impressive appearance of all the aircrafts under one giant roof, staring up at them wasn’t super exciting in my girly mind. Then as we stood a few steps in from the entrance, employee Mariah said, “You can go in all the aircrafts that have gray steps.”
My eyes immediately flicked around the giant space. I saw a lot of gray staircases.
And just like that the Aviation Museum soared up my list of awesome places you must go to with your kids, your mate, or your grandpop. The day we were there, a gentlemen who was stationed at NASW while he was in the service, was also visiting.
Sam and Finn went up the first set of gray steps they saw and popped themselves into a helicopter where they started to push, flick and pull silver and black buttons everywhere. It was like watching them step inside one of their toy soldier vehicles. They started to play right away. “Fire, Finn, Fire” “Sam, there’s a dragon over there, let’s get him.” The only hint of trepidation came from three-year-old Finn, who, just as he was assisted into the helicopter asked me if it would take off and leave the museum. Once I told him there was no gas in it, he relaxed. Naturally.
We were about three aircrafts in before I began to go in them too. Touching, smelling, and interacting with the old planes was seriously cool. It gave my kids and me a real experience, so much more than just taking in the exteriors. Once you put your hands on the gear shift, you feel like you are flying, and as you look up at the seemingly thousands of buttons surrounding the cockpit, the appreciation for the smart, brave men and women fighting in World War II becomes palpable.
“We try to be as interactive as possible,” said Deputy Director Bruce Fournier.
Dotted among the planes and helicopters are interactive exhibits such as a large one donated by the Franklin Institute on the science of flight. Sam and Finn loved playing with the small exhibits even though they were a little young to really get what they were doing. They didn’t seem to mind and neither did I. There were also exhibits on the Tuskegee Airman, women in military aviation, and a real ejection seat.
One of the last exhibits we went to was a new one called, “All Available Boats,” about the devastating events of September 11. Using photos, text and audio interaction, the museum explains the significant role boats played in the rescue of thousands of people in New York City that day. It was so good and truly moving, that a couple tears fell as I got in the moment.
My two guys and I spent a couple hours soaking in the history brought to life in Hangar #1 in the NASW Aviation Museum. It was fun, fresh and exciting. And though there was dust inside some of the planes, I couldn’t have been happier to see it.