Cold weather is hard on machines—metal turns brittle, gears shrink, and steam turns to frost. The next few weeks have the bustle of the holidays to distract you, but then what? Well, if you’re a fan of all things airship, escape the chill and come down to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola to see the Lighter Than Air Exhibit.
The museum’s enormous network of hangars is filled with every imaginable aircraft; docents are quick to offer a map. Make your way past jets and biplanes to the second floor where a pair of baskets from Navy balloons welcome you to the Lighter than Air exhibit. The artifacts here tend toward the very large and the very small. Suspended near the entrance to the exhibit is the nose cone of a ZPG-2, large enough for me to park my car under; nearby, the single wing badge of a Navy Dirigible Pilot glitters, small enough hide under a playing card.
One of the classic advantages of lighter than aircraft over airplanes was their ability to stay aloft for long periods of time. Because of this, the exhibit displays more than ships and uniforms—it also contains silverware, cheese graters, and countless vintage copies of LIFE magazine, all evidence of a vastly different experience than heavier than air pilots. Unless you were one of those pilots who used the USS Macon or the USS Akron as a flying aircraft carrier, of course. A video in the center of the exhibit shows how those daring pilots used a mechanism called a trapeze to take off from and return to their homes in the sky.
My favorite display is the gondola of the “ghost ship,” L-8. On August 16th, 1942, Lieutenant Ernest Cody and Ensign Charles Adams took the L-8 on a routine patrol of the West coast, watching for enemy ships and submarines. At 7:42 AM, Lieutenant Cody radioed to base to report that there was a possible oil slick in the water, and that they were going to investigate further.
Three and half hours later, the L-8 crash landed in Daly City, California. The gondola was empty. The classified papers entrusted to Lieutenant Cody were still there. The payload was accounted for. The helium valves were set exactly as they should have been. Nothing was amiss, except that the L-8 was in pieces on the ground and the crew was missing. Lieutenant Cody and Ensign Adams were never found. The gondola has been restored to demonstrate what it might have looked like the morning they left.
The museum closes at 5PM, which leaves plenty of time to explore another expression of Pensacola’s history as an airship hub: Phineas Phogg’s Balloon Works. This beautiful two story dance club is decorated to resemble a fanciful version of an airship gondola, complete with carved wooden railings, rigging “suspending” the second floor, and a DJ’s booth that was once a pulpit in London. The centerpiece of the experience is the giant brass sailing balloon above the dance floor—right next to the disco ball.
If Pensacola is far enough away that you’d need a hotel, the city provides a lovely, retro experience in the Crowne Plaza. This downtown hotel is located on the site of the L&N Railroad Passenger Depot; the original train station has been renovated and is in use as the hotel’s lobby, lounges, and shops. Most of the materials are original but there are a few imports: a stained glass ceiling from a Vaudeville Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio looks down on the main bar, for example, and a large brass corner clock from a Kentucky bank tells time in the lobby. Many of the rooms feature paintings of blimps and dirigibles where other hotels put images of flowers or landscapes. Combine that with reasonable prices and lovely service, and you have a perfect end to a perfect steampunk vacation.
The Lighter Than Air Exhibit is a permanent exhibit at the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. Parking and admission are free. The museum is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM, seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The museum is located on Naval Air Station Pensacola; visitors must present a valid ID at the gate to be admitted. (More information about entering the air station is available here and here).
Phineas Phogg’s Balloon Works is a two-story club located inside the Seville Quarter complex in downtown Pensacola. Admission is free Sunday through Tuesday, and varies by time on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The complex is 21+ except for Thursdays, when it is 18+. Admission details can be found here.
The Crowne Plaza Pensacola is a non-smoking hotel located 20 minutes from the Naval Aviation Museum and 3 minutes from Phineas Phogg’s. Reservations can be made here.
Caroline Willis runs Larp Couture, a blog about fashion, anthropology, and whacking people with latex.