Voices to reopen NAS Pensacola to visitors are rising
Saturday — for one day only — Naval Air Station Pensacola will allow public access, after being closed to most of the public since the terrorist attack there in December 2019.
“Coming into command here, I absolutely knew that base access was an issue. It is a priority for me,” said Capt. Terry Shashaty, commanding officer aboard NAS Pensacola. “It’s trying to figure out how to open it up to the community, but making sure that we end up doing that safely and securely, [for] not only the personnel that work and live on base but also those that would end up attend the museum as well.”
Shashaty is in favor of reopening the base and the museum, lighthouse, and other historic locations, and is looking for ways to make that happen. He adds that he was aware of the situation as a candidate for the post.
"I knew what took place in December of 2019 — so I came down here fully knowing that that was one of the things I was going to be working on,” Shashaty said. “And I can honestly attest that is something that I work on almost daily, to try to figure out that problem.”
One of the possible long–term solutions is the Florida Department of Transportation to build a throughway on the base to connect the tourist attractions.
“I totally understand the frustration that’s out there with the local Pensacola community," said Shashaty. "I have had many conversations with community leaders out there. And I don’t feel that it’s directed at me, or at NAS Pensacola specifically, because we continue to have a great relationship with the community.”
The public demand to reopen the base includes a website and petition campaign — “Open Our Museum” now underway.
The decision on public access must come from the Department of the Navy, and/or the Pentagon. Meantime, work began a couple of months ago for the one-day opening on Saturday, with an eye on the return of the Blue Angels homecoming show in November — which flew at Pensacola Beach last year because of the pandemic.
“It was a good idea that we were kicking around," Shashaty said. "We kind of figured out when a good time to do it. But then we looked at the June 4th date, and we were like, ‘That’s perfect.’ Not only do I get to make sure that my security processes are in place for when we actually do something larger — like the air show — but it also is in line with the commemoration of the Battle of Midway.”
Reopening the base and the attractions on board is vital to the area's economy.
“The impact is above and beyond just the number of visitors coming in and staying overnight,” said Darien Schaefer, president and CEO of Visit Pensacola, the city’s tourism agency.
“As much as visitors enjoy it, I think our residents really love the Naval Aviation Museum,” he said. “I certainly do. My wife and I have been able to go, but certainly not as often as we normally would or could, if [they] get that waiver back in place. That would allow visitation on a regular basis.”
As a “drive-to” destination, the Pensacola area features more than one attraction including the beaches, which are the primary draw. Schaefer says that works hand-in-glove with the museum.
“Because when people get too much sun, being indoors at the museum is great; if it’s rainy, being indoors at the museum is perfect,” he said. “They really work very well together and now, without the museum, people are certainly taking advantage of the other attractions and things to do. We’re certainly seeing an increase in visitation to downtown Pensacola. People are doing other outdoor recreation things in addition to the beach.”
Despite challenges such as Hurricane Sally, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the base closure, Schaefer says those numbers are up.
“And we’ve been having some record to [Escambia] County; and to think what it could be if we had our number-one attraction available as well, it would just be phenomenal,” Schaefer said.
Since the terrorist attack, the base has been restricted. Only Department of Defense cardholders and veterans with a Veterans Health ID are allowed. Those with relatives buried at Barrancas National Cemetery can get six-month passes. But Shashaty cautions the one-day access is separate from talks about opening entirely.
“So I really don’t think it will speed up [the] base access discussion for the waiver that we need to actually open it up,” he said. “But it will give me a lot more information for me to be able to consider the things that are necessary for the safety and security of the base.”
On Saturday, the public will have access to NAS Pensacola from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through the West Gate on Blue Angel Parkway only. Everyone 18 and older must have a valid picture ID, such as a driver's license or passport. Access will be available dependent on available parking at the museum and lighthouse.
This one-time access was selected to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway , June 4-7, 1942, which shifted the balance of naval power in the Pacific.
“The toll of enemy fighting power was decisive," says the voiceover in a documentary about the battle. "Three Japanese battleships, possibly four cruisers — three transports, and one destroyer were sunk. The loss to the Japanese aircraft carriers was extremely heavy; two to three sunk and two badly damaged.”
Luring the American aircraft carriers into a trap and occupying Midway was part of an overall strategy aimed at expanding Japan's defensive perimeter — and in response to Jimmy Doolittle’s air raid on Tokyo in April of 1942, four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The Japanese carefully planned this sneak attack. They gambled all — and lost,” said the voiceover. “The Battle of Midway, the Japanese hoped, would be their stepping stone to Pearl Harbor, Australia, Alaska, and eventually, the United States mainland.”
On Thursday, NAS Pensacola will host a job fair, seeking new hires for base security, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Navy Exchange, 5600 U.S. 98 West.