was lucky enough to sit down with CAPT Sterling “Sterls” Gilliam, USN (ret) current Director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida to get his thoughts on Naval Aviation and what it is like to run the Navy’s premier museum.

CAPT Gilliam has logged more than 4,600 flight hours in 22 different naval aircraft and accumulated more than 1,300 carrier arrested landings. He has commanded a carrier-based Electronic Attack Squadron, a Fleet Replacement Squadron and a deployed Carrier Air Wing during an outstanding 30-year career.

The National Naval Aviation Museum is the world’s third largest Aviation museum with over 350,000 square feet of enclosed exhibit space. In addition the 60 acre campus includes the National Flight Academy and a 37-acre outside exhibit area (only the Smithsonian and Wright Patterson are larger). The museum has over 150 restored aircraft, a Giant Screen Theater, and 3D Flight Simulators to test your pilot skills making it a must see for any aviation enthusiast.

FS: You’ve been involved with Naval Aviation pretty much your entire adult life. How does it feel to take over as Director for one of the premier aviation museums in the world?


Sterling Gilliam, National Naval Aviation Museum Director, Credit: Pensacola News Journal
Sterling Gilliam, National Naval Aviation Museum Director, Credit: Pensacola News Journal

Sterls: I am thrilled to be the new Director of the National Naval Aviation Museum. My 30-year career was an embarrassment of riches and I absolutely hated hanging up the flight suit when it ended.

When the opportunity to return to the place I started my navy career presented itself, I jumped at the chance to rejoin to the “family” business.

One interesting note is that my predecessor, CAPT Bob “Ras” Rasmussen, USN(ret) last served on active duty as the Commanding Officer of Aviation Schools Command headquartered here in Pensacola. As such, Ras served as my commissioning officer when I graduated Aviation Office Candidate in 1983. Retiring a few years later, Ras became the Museum’s 3rd director and over the ensuing years, he led the efforts that have grown us to the third largest aviation museum in the world.

Ras retired at the tender age of 84 and I am honored to follow in his footsteps.

FS: Many people know that Pensacola is home to the famous Blue Angels flight demonstration team, beautiful white sandy beaches, and some of the best deep sea fishing on the Gulf Coast. Can you tell us what your favorite part is about Pensacola being a vacation destination?

Blue Angels Overhead Display, Credit:
Blue Angels Overhead Display, Credit:

Sterls: I love to call Pensacola home and for vacationers it is a great place to visit because there is so much to do here. In a single day, you can spend time on the prettiest beaches in the nation, watch the Blue Angels practice, visit the best aviation museum in the world and then take in a minor league baseball game while sitting in a waterfront stadium. [Editor’s Note: The Pensacola Blue Wahoo’s are a Double A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds]

FS: For our Fighter Sweep audience, what is something about the Museum that potential visitors may not know?

Sterls: Many are aware that the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, a.k.a the Blue Angels are based out of NAS Pensacola. What folks may not fully appreciate is that in between travel to airshows, the Blues practice twice a week right over our museum.

On those practice days, we open up our flight-line so that museum patrons can experience their own personal Blue Angels Airshow. It is quite a treat and adds to the already great experience of visiting an aviation museum.

FS: Now that you’ve been “in the saddle” as Director for about 7 months, can you tell us any plans that might be in the works for the Museum?

Sterls: I have inherited a first rate, well run organization, but my goal is to make the National Naval Aviation Museum even better than it is today.

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One of the first actions I have taken is to more frequently move our display aircraft around the museum and around the campus. We are in the process of building concrete display aprons around the campus so we can rotate our outdoor collection periodically to better tell the Naval Aviation story. Goal being: “If you have not been to the museum in the last six months, you have not been to the museum!”

Blues Sign Autographs
Blue Angels Sign Autographs at the Museum, Credit: National Aviation Museum

Another major initiative is to better capture in our museum what our active duty force is currently doing. The history of Naval Aviation is being written every day. Currently, the USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) is on station in the Arabian Gulf and her embarked Air Wing, CVW-3 are flying offensive strikes against ISIS targets nightly. These missions are long, often in excess of six hours and culminate in a night arrested landing back aboard Ike. We want to tell that story too…

 FS: Our readers love “There I was” stories. With over 4,600 flight hours, you have to share with us one of your best “There I was” naval aviation moments.

Sterls: Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. I happened to be deployed on USS Enterprise (CVN-65). I was the Commanding Officer of one of the embarked squadrons of CVW-8 and we were five months into a scheduled six month deployment.

The day prior, we had just transited the Straits of Hormuz after conducting no-fly zone enforcement over Iraq as a part of Operation Southern Watch for a number of months. 9/11 found us in the Northern Arabian Sea with Enterprise was steaming at best speed for Cape Town, South Africa which was scheduled to be our final liberty port of deployment.

World Trade Center on 9-11, Credit:
World Trade Center on 9-11, Credit:

It was late afternoon for us when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. When the second aircraft hit, the CO of the Enterprise brought the ship to all-stop. Before either tower had fallen, we had reversed course and were steaming at flank speed for a rendezvous point off the Pakistani coast where we joined with USS Carl Vinson and CVW-11, our scheduled relief for Operation Southern Watch.

As a result, before nightfall on 9/11, the United States had not one, but two Nimitz Class aircraft carriers and associated Air Wings within easy striking distance of the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan.

I have always felt that how this scenario played out served as quite a testament to the value that our forward deployed naval forces bring to the table. Couple that with the versatility USS Vinson and Enterprise showed a few weeks later when we began continuous, around the clock offensive strikes against Taliban and Al Qaeda and you get a real appreciation of how much Naval Aviation contributes to our national defense.

On a personal note, participating in those opening strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom was the highlight of my flying experience.

FS: Finally, what is your favorite exhibit in the Museum and what makes it so special? We know you are going to say the big F-14 Tomcat out front…

Sterls: The Tomcat out front is a close second, but hands down, my favorite exhibit in the museum is the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) display on the second deck.

LSO exhibit. Credit: National Naval Aviation Museum
LSO exhibit. Credit: National Naval Aviation Museum

As many of your readers are aware, LSOs – often referred to as “Paddles” are the personnel responsible for guiding their fellow pilots safely back aboard the aircraft carrier – regardless of weather or sea state.

I spent a good portion of my career as an LSO and I loved my time on the platform bringing pilots safely back aboard. Every time I walk by our LSO exhibit, I get a smile on my face and a desire to head aft on the flight deck to the LSO platform and radio to the Air Boss that “Paddles is manned and ready…”

If You Go

The National Naval Aviation Museum is located aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, the Cradle of Naval Aviation. Parking and Admission are free. The museum is open daily from 9 am-5 pm. For more information, please visit the National Naval Aviation Museum’s website here. 

Fighter Sweep would like to thank Director Gilliam for taking a moment to sit down with us. 

Top Photo:  Front entrance to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL, Credit: Orlando Sentinel