Beginning next Monday, February 1st, all unescorted visitors to Naval Air Station Pensacola who do not possess military identification will be required to enter the base’s west gate outside Perdido Key.
NAS Pensacola’s main gate on Navy Boulevard will only be open to DoD cardholders, as well as previous vetted personnel who possess a valid visitor’s pass, according to base officials. Visitors to Barrancas National Cemetery will be vetted upon arrival at the Visitors Information Center at the Main Gate.
The new base security measures will result in visitors to the National Naval Aviation Museum, Fort Barrancas and Pensacola Lighthouse to use an eight-mile detour around the base.
“The safety and security of everyone who works, lives or visits NAS Pensacola is my priority,” Naval Air Station Pensacola Commanding Officer Capt. Keith Hoskins said. “This change will bring the installation in alignment with security directives issued by the Secretary of the Navy and are not in response to any specific threat.”
The nation’s first naval air station, known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” annually attracts up to a million visitors. They come to visit the National Museum of Naval Aviation, historic Fort Barrancas, Barrancas National Cemetery and the old Pensacola lighthouse or attend Blue Angels air shows. The base is home to some of the most visited museums and historical attractions in the state.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, base officials tightened security, resulting in a significant decline in base visitation. It is unknown how this new policy would impact visitation to base museums.
Hoskins said Monday that additional security measures will be implemented as part of the tightened security, including the creation of manned security checkpoints on Taylor and Radford Roads to limit visitor access to restricted areas of the base.
“This is the best course of action to ensure we maintain openness of NAS Pensacola public sites for our visitors to come on board our air station,” Hoskins said.
Sterling Gilliam, director of the National Naval Aviation Museum, assured the public that this change will not negatively impact visitors but may cause a decrease in visitation
“The lifeblood of a museum is our visitors and our patrons,” said Gilliam. “Anything that impacts that is of concern to us. We’ve had extensive discussions and we feel the plan that the base put in place is the best way forward given the security concerns throughout the Department of Defense.”
It is not known how the detour will impact traffic and congestion on Gulf Beach Highway or the west gate of NAS Pensacola, which according to some base officials, is incapable of handling such an increase in traffic volume. Base officials said they are working with the state and county on ensuring local roads, such as Gulf Beach Highway towards the west gate are given priority for infrastructure upgrades by FDOT.
When it comes to large base events, such as the annual Blue Angels airshows and other “open base” events, officials say they will consider opening the main gate on a case-by-case basis. The decision to close the main gate off to visitors was not made by base commanders, but by a DoD-wide directive to tighten installation security around the U.S.
Visitors to Barrancas National Cemetery can continue to use the main gate, but will need to check in and be vetted at Building 777 to receive a daily visitor’s pass.
As far as attendance to the base’s world-famous naval aviation museum, officials say they have no expectations of seeing less visitors in the future.
“We had over 900,000 visitors in 2015 and we hope to have similar numbers in 2016,” said Gilliam. “This is the preeminent aviation museum in the world.”