For a city that home ports one-third of the U.S. Navy fleet, it seems surprising that only now San Diego has opened a Naval Museum to rival similar attractions on the East Coast. But now that it’s here, the USS Midway has made an even bigger splash on the city’s waterfront than its proponents ever expected.
Go to the website for the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum and you see that the number of first-year visitors was projected to be 400,000. To the delight of organizers and volunteers, the USS Midway hosted 350,000 visitors in just the first four months.
A visit to the museum makes it easy to see why the attraction is setting box office records. With all the precision you would expect from a military-based organization, the founders of the Aircraft Carrier Museum have put together an impressive visual and historical experience that appeals to all ages, and especially to those who have any sort of fascination with things military.
We found the Midway to offer just the right balance between a structured, orderly display and one that is more individualized to fit each visitor’s particular interests and time available to tour the museum. As part of the $13 admission, each visitor is loaned a "Walkman"-like audio device and headphones to hear pre-recorded explanations of 29 different points of interest in various locations around the ship. But you’re totally on your own – you can see these points of interest in any order or even skip some if you like. The explanations are relatively brief, but usually you can get further explanation by just pushing the play button. Each visitor can go at his or her individual pace and linger where there is the most interest.
We’ve experienced this type of audio system before, but the Aircraft Carrier Museum does it right. In Seattle, for example, the Jimi Hendrix museum uses a similar system but the audio units are big and unwieldy, and the explanations cannot be tailored to your particular level of interest.
So why is it worth visiting the USS Midway? Just visiting an aircraft carrier, for one thing, is a treat unto itself. But in the Midway’s case, there is a 47-year history that is good to keep in the back of your mind as you get a real sense of what it’s like to live and work on an aircraft carrier.
The Midway was the world’s largest warship when it was launched in 1945 and remained so for more than a decade. Named for the famous Battle of Midway, the carrier did not actually see service in that battle, but did serve in combat during the Vietnam War and was one of six carriers sent to fight Iraq during Desert Storm. The ship also played a vital role in many historical achievements – the first rocket fired from a ship was fired from the Midway, and the first jet takeoff from an aircraft carrier was made from this very flight deck.
Visitors get a good up-close look at the living and working conditions on board the Midway. Entering on the massive Hangar Deck, they are first treated to several exhibits offering history on the ship and its aircraft. Then doorways open here and there to allow visitors to step into the galley and mess deck area – where 13,000 meals were served each day – and into such work areas as the weapons control station, metal shop and post office. Nearby, a bank of computer simulators are available so you can try your hand at "flying" some of the Midway’s jet aircraft.
Walking through the ship, we could easily picture this vessel as a "city at sea." While significantly smaller than today’s carriers – and, by the way, the brand-new USS Ronald Reagan is visible just across the bay from the Midway – the ship had a crew of 4,500. It has 200 miles of piping, 3,000 miles of copper conductor and storage capacity for 2.23 million gallons of fuel – not including 1.24 million gallons of jet fuel.
Up on the Flight Deck, visitors see aircraft and the systems that help pilots bring their aircraft in to land on a "postage stamp" in pitching seas. The superstructure houses the primary flight control area and bridge, and offers visitors the chance to see where flight operations were controlled. A suggestion: when you visit the Midway, go first to the superstructure area because this was the only place on the ship where we encountered lines.
Originally designed to carry propeller-driven fighter aircraft, the Midway soon adapted to the new jet aircraft that became the mainstay of American naval airpower. The deck was reconfigured and catapults and electronics were upgraded to handle the ship’s F/A-18 Hornets, A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair II’s – up to 68 jet airplanes on any given mission.
Today visitors will find examples of those aircraft on the flight deck as well as an E-2C Hawkeye and an F-4 Phantom II, one of the workhorses in the Vietnam War. Helicopters and historic propeller-driven aircraft also are on display.
Interestingly, aircraft drivers also are on display in the form of docents who volunteer their time to give first-hand accounts of their time on the Midway. We came across former A-7 pilot John Burkholder giving visitors an impassioned explanation of the "meatball" landing system that optically arranges lights to help guide a pilot down the glide slope to the carrier’s flight deck. Burkholder’s enthusiasm for the system was heartfelt as he remembers one dark night in the mid-70’s when it took him four times to land his jet on a pitching, rolling USS Midway.
Burkholder, who lives in the San Diego suburb of Fallbrook, is one of 160 docents who each volunteer up to 20 hours a month to share their stories with up to 5,000 Midway visitors on any given day. Usually there are about nine docents on board posted at various locations on the ship to give the museum a feel of "living history."
As you might expect, Burkholder is proud of the ship that served as his base of operations for a three-year period in the 1970’s. Like many Midway veterans, Burkholder is a believer in the "Midway Magic," a lore that has grown up as the carrier seemed to prove itself better and more reliable than many of its sister ships. Burkholder points out it was no accident that the admiral conducting the Gulf War chose Midway as his command ship during that war.
While visitor attendance on the Midway is running more than double what was expected, Burkholder noted that, at this stage, more men than women are visiting the attraction. But he says that’s just a matter of getting the word out to women that there is more here than meets the eye.
"As soon as we tell them the Midway served 13,000 meals a day," Burkholder said, "they want to see that."
WHERE: The San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum is located on San Diego’s waterfront, 910 N. Harbor Drive. It’s easily accessible from downtown and there is ample parking in the general vicinity.
WHAT: The San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum is the only naval museum and attraction of its kind in a city that is the largest military complex in the nation. It’s an opportunity to visit a historic aircraft carrier and learn history through displays and from those who lived it.
WHEN: Any time of year. San Diego has the most dependable weather in the nation. You'll find the best travel deals during the shoulder seasons and, if you can go soon, check out any last minute travel deals your hotel may offer.
WHY: A well-organized exhibit in a scenic city loaded with visitor attractions of all kinds. The product of 10 years of hard behind-the-scenes work by local volunteers, this museum will appeal to visitors of all ages, women as well as men.
HOW: To learn more about the San Diego Aircraft Museum, visit www.midway.org. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week except Christmas and Thanksgiving. Admission is $13 for adults, $10 for military and for seniors 62 and over, $7 for youth ages 6 to 17. Kids under 6 are free. Plan on your visit taking 90 minutes to two hours. For a recommended list of San Diego hotels, click here. Hotels in San Diego often offer vacation packages that include admission to some area attractions.
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Click here for several options in San Diego.