PENSACOLA, Fla. – Naval Air Station Pensacola is in the rare position of being both an active military installation and a popular tourist attraction.
Alongside its mission of training the U.S. Navy’s next generation of pilots and air crew, NAS Pensacola is also home to an array of public facilities and amenities such as a historic lighthouse, a national cemetery, a golf course and the world’s third-largest aviation museum, which draws more than 900,000 visitors a year.
Over the years, the Navy’s leadership has worked to maintain a security sweet spot that provides both base security and public access.
“We love having the visitors on our base and having people come onboard and learn about our history. Our museum is one of the best in the world,” said Jason Bortz, a spokesman for NAS Pensacola.
“But security is always our No. 1 priority.”
On Monday, three days after a gunman killed three people and wounded eight others at NAS Pensacola, Navy officials announced the installation would only be open to Department of Defense card holders.
Bortz said there is no estimate when the installation would reopen to the public at large.
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A look at security at NAS Pensacola
The base has two entrances, a main gate and a west gate, with security checkpoints in both locations. Before this weekend, civilian visitors had been able to drive onto the base if they had proper identification, such as a driver’s license, and were visiting an approved public destination. Visitors may be subject to background checks and random security checks, which can include searches of vehicles.
With the exception of security personnel, firearms are prohibited at the base. However, few vehicles are inspected at the base entrance once they have shown identification.
In 2016, former base commander Capt. Keith Hoskins announced the main gate would be closed to the general public, citing a need to bring NAS Pensacola in line with security directives from the secretary of defense. Civilians were still permitted to enter through the west gate.
Much of the base is off limits to civilians, and at the time Hoskins said manned checkpoints would be put in place on to ensure visitors unfamiliar with the base remained in the public areas. He noted that while public access was important, security was paramount.
“We can’t speculate on what impact this is going to have in terms of tourism onboard NAS Pensacola or the Pensacola area,” Hoskins said when announcing the policy change. “But I can tell you throughout the process we partnered with all the stakeholders to ensure this was done in the most efficient manner to ensure that we have those folks that want to visit our public attractions that they have that opportunity.”
NAS Pensacola is home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which annually brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors. The museum features historic aircraft, flight simulators, a theatre, a virtual reality moon landing experience and other exhibits.
The installation is also home to a historic lighthouse and museum that has drawn The Travel Channel and the SciFi channel for ghost hunts; regular Blue Angels practice sessions that can draw up to 25,000 attendees; and Barrancas National Cemetery, where more than 46,000 service members and their loved ones have been laid to rest since the early 1800s.
Captain Christopher Martin, who served as commanding officer of NAS Pensacola from spring of 2016 until his retirement earlier this year, spoke to the difficulties of balancing security and public access in an exit interview with the News Journal.
“It has been a real challenge managing the expectation of base access,” Martin said. “These measures are in place for a reason, but we have also been working on possible solutions that would ease some of the access issues.”
In late 2018, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and his then-counterpart, former Sen, Bill Nelson, tasked NAS Pensacola with drafting a plan to increase public access to the base while maintaining security.
Bortz said it’s a unique challenge, because most installations don’t have facilities like a museum or a lighthouse.
“It’s a balancing act,” Bortz said.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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