Hill Goodspeed has made his passion for naval aviation his life’s work. For more than a quarter of a century, he has served as historian at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
Hill spends much of his time researching, interviewing aviators and, in some cases, helping recover aircraft and artifacts that bring much of naval history to life.
His love of flight began as a young boy.
“My grandfather was a naval aviator and got his wings here in Pensacola in 1941,” he recalls. “I visited my grandparents throughout my entire life even though I didn’t grow up here.”
Hill laughs, then adds, “I actually came to the museum when I was a kid. So, I’ve sort of come full circle.”
The museum houses some 4,000 artifacts and more than 150 restored aircraft. Each plays a role in showcasing the spirit and innovation of aviation as it involves the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
Hill says that encompasses quite a bit.
“That could be setting records that create progress,” he says, “to individuals who started in naval aviation and ended up walking on the moon, to those who explored and, of course, those who really put their lives on the line for their country in a combat situation.”
Every aircraft tells a story. Sometimes, part of that involves the recovery process itself—like the SBD Dauntless dive bomber. It is one of many recovered from Lake Michigan, where it crashed during carrier qualification.
“During World War II, the Navy operated two paddle-wheel steamers on Lake Michigan that they converted to aircraft carriers,” Hill explains. “That’s where they trained the majority of carrier aviators because they didn’t have to worry about enemy submarines.”
Fortunately, none of those recovered aircraft involved any fatalities.
“This one turned out to be an amazing aircraft,” Hill says. “It had been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and it flew in two combat actions: one in New Guinea and one at the Battle of Midway.”
Hill was on hand when the aircraft arrived. He had the opportunity to delve deeper to uncover some of its back story.
“One of the pilots who’d flown it was still alive when we were restoring it, so I got to know him,” Hill says.
Later, when restoration was complete and the aircraft was officially unveiled to the public, family members—including children—of two of the pilots who had flown the dive bomber attended the ceremony. One pilot died during the Battle of Midway; the other died during the Korean War.
“We got the chance to see them sit in the same seats where the dads they hardly knew had once sat,” Hill says.
He relishes those experiences. He says he enjoys bringing people together to learn more about some of the things their loved ones did in defense of their country.
One of the most interesting collections of artifacts Hill has worked with arrived in 1995, but dated back to World War II: a box of letters written by a young naval aviator from a small town in Pennsylvania.
“We started reading through them and they ended up being every letter this young aviator wrote from the moment he went off to training in July of 1945,” Hill says. “Then, as we read further, we realized he had been shot down and captured, and was in the city of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb went off.”
That young man died in Hiroshima—in effect, by friendly fire. Yet his story lives on.
“Just to read his thoughts, then know what happened to him, it was an incredible collection to receive,” Hill says.
Now a writer and accomplished author, Hill interviewed people who had been with the young pilot in Hiroshima and survived. What he learned provided the foundation for the first article he ever wrote.
Museum visitors are often surprised by some of the famous names in naval aviation. Those include former President George H.W. Bush and many of the astronauts.
The list also includes athletes such as Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick, who died in a training exercise during World War II. Bob Barker, host of “The Price is Right,” was a fighter pilot in World War II. Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick, flew for the Marines during the 1940s and 1950s. Actor Paul Newman served as a Navy aircrewman during World War II.
Hill says he is fascinated by the fact that even though there is so much history already gathered at the museum, there is always the potential to learn something new.
He is excited to work at a job that allows him to learn, collect and share with others.
“We still get things here that shed new light or provide a new perspective on a historical event,” Hill says, “or it could be somebody who is 90 years old and happens to walk into the museum and share his story.
“There could also be someone at sea right now making history who walks into the museum not too long from now, and we get a chance to talk to that person. What’s neat about naval aviation is history’s being written every day.”
Pensacola Naval Air Station is home to the museum and headquarters for the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team. As of press time, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the public is not allowed to access the base to visit the museum or watch the Blue Angels practice. The museum is open, but only to Department of Defense identification cardholders.