Crossing the Streams: Popular Culture and Naval Aviation

Marc Levitt, National Naval Aviation Museum

Every year, 35,000 visitors from around the country descend upon Pensacola, Florida to attend the local comic convention known as Pensacon. Staff from the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) have presented at Pensacon for the last four years, showcasing historical stories and artifacts from our collections. 

Since the NNAM is aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, it’s easier for us to go out to the convention, rather than having the visitors come across town and on to a military installation.  We’ve learned that to be successful at a convention full of different fandoms, we have to be creative in connecting Navy history to the interests and lives of the visitors. Fortunately, the rich history of naval aviation doesn’t disappoint. 

USS Akron mid-flight

One such example is describing the Helicarrier from the popular Marvel universe. This rotary-based aircraft carrier lifts out of the water and flies, while still launching and landing planes in midair. It seems like a work of science fiction until we inform the crowd that the Navy actually did it in the 1930s with the airships Macon and Akron.

These floating Lighter-Than-Airships housed five F9C Sparrowhawk fighter aircraft that could take off and land from the airships with the aid of a mechanical trapeze. This is one of the more visible examples of the link between popular culture and the Navy.

USS Akron Trapeze

We also play a more interactive game with the audience: the Comic Book Character Scavenger Hunt. We provide a series of clues for them to guess what character we’re referring to. For example, the clues for a character might look like this:

  1. Their body underwent a transformation.
  2. They were a teacher for students.
  3. Their origin story is based in a country connected to the Great Lakes.
Wolverine (1982 Limited Series) #2, Marvel Comics

Finally, we provide a silhouette of the character if the clues weren’t enough to guess the character. The above example leads to the X-Man mutant Wolverine, one of the most iconic characters in comic books. This leads the player/audience to the Navy’s USS Wolverine (IX-64), and we show how the two are related:

USS Wolverine (XI
  1. The ship also underwent a transformation, from a luxury cruise ship (the Seeandbee) to the aircraft carrier Wolverine.
  2. The carrier, along with its sister ship the Sable, trained more than 17,000 student pilots during World War II.
  3. The Wolverine was stationed on the Great Lake Michigan, and was colloquially known as part of the “corn belt fleet.”

Engaging these historic stories through the lens of comic book interests captures the audience’s attention. When we deploy this scavenger hunt in the museum, it allows visitors to explore the museum by walking to the unique aircraft and artifacts on display. Moreover, it reinforces the relevance of Navy history to their lives in a fun, interactive way.

We’ve discovered many other stories and connections in our collections that link popular culture and naval aviation, including Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. While this is a fun exercise for the staff that are passionate about “geek” culture, it also serves a larger purpose – reminding our visitors and audiences that the Navy has connections to their daily lives, and through those connections we are able to tell the stories of service and sacrifice that our Sailors have given for more than 100 years.