Discovering San Diego's Naval Pride: What's the Aircraft Carrier in San Diego?

The USS Midway, the aircraft carrier in San Diego, is not just a ship; it’s a living museum brimming with history. Permanently moored at Navy Pier, this vessel invites you to explore its illustrious past right at the waterfront of San Diego. Buy Tickets here

Key Takeaways

  • The USS Midway, now a museum in San Diego, served as a symbol of American industrial power and military strength, with significant roles in the Vietnam War, and Operation Desert Storm before its decommissioning in 1992.

  • The USS Midway Museum offers rich educational experiences with interactive exhibits, flight simulators, and educational programs, aiming to inspire future generations with the vessel’s legacy and naval history.

  • San Diego’s economy and culture are deeply influenced by its naval presence, with carriers like the USS Midway contributing to tourism, defense, and community engagement, while the city’s institutions continue to innovate in naval research and development. 


The USS Midway: San Diego's Iconic Aircraft Carrier


Image Credit: Debbie Ann Powell

The silhouette of the USS Midway graces San Diego Bay like a testament to human ingenuity and martial spirit. Its journey from a wartime titan to a beloved museum was made possible by a passionate local community determined to honor and preserve the vessel’s legacy. Now, as the USS Midway Museum, it sets an example in naval preservation, annually attracting over a million visitors, captivated by the tales of ‘Midway Magic’ and the men and women who served aboard.

This museum ship, with its flight deck and towering island, is not just a static exhibit; it’s a vibrant educational resource, supported by over 750 volunteers who dedicate their time to bring its history to life.

Construction and Launch

The USS Midway was a product of American wartime urgency and industrial might. Its keel was laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia on October 27, 1943. After a construction period that spanned just over a year, the vessel was launched into the waters on March 20, 1945, in a ceremony sponsored by Mrs. Bradford William Ripley, Jr., marking a new chapter in naval operations.

The USS Midway’s entry into service was a pivotal moment, symbolizing a new era of naval warfare that would see the aircraft carrier, such as the midway aircraft, become the centerpiece of naval strategy. The midway pilots played a crucial role in this transformation.

Key Moments in Service

Throughout its service, the USS Midway was at the forefront of American military power, projecting strength across the globe. During the Vietnam War, it took part in significant combat operations, flying strikes against military targets and famously downing the first and last MiG aircraft of the conflict. In a display of its humanitarian capabilities, the USS Midway led Operation Frequent Wind in 1975, executing the largest helicopter evacuation in history, rescuing over 3,000 refugees as Saigon fell.

It also marked its place in history books as the first aircraft carrier to extensively operate in the sub-Arctic during Operation Frostbite and later, as the flagship in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, launching the first carrier strikes of the war. This impressive record has earned it the title of the longest serving aircraft carrier.

Decommissioning and Preservation Efforts

The USS Midway’s active duty came to an end on April 11, 1992, when it was decommissioned from naval service. However, the story of the Midway was far from over. Thanks to extensive efforts to preserve this historic ship, the USS Midway opened its decks to the public as a museum on June 7, 2004.

This transition from an active carrier to a vessel of education and remembrance was a testament to its enduring legacy and the indelible mark it left on naval history.

Visiting the USS Midway Museum


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The USS Midway Museum, a treasure trove of naval heritage, awaits visitors at 910 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA. It stands proudly on Navy Pier, with convenient parking and public transportation options, such as the nearby Santa Fe Train Depot and American Plaza Trolley Station, ensuring accessibility for all.

Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, it invites exploration and discovery with the last admission at 4 p.m.. With admission fees set at $32 for adults and $22 for youth and veterans (when purchased online), it’s a journey into history that’s accessible to all, while active duty military and children under three can immerse themselves in this nautical wonder free of charge.

As you step aboard, prepare for a security bag check, relish the fact that service animals and strollers are welcome, but outside food and bikes must remain ashore.

Exhibits and Attractions

Aboard the USS Midway Museum, one is transported into a world of naval aviation where interactive exhibits beckon. Some highlights of the museum include:

  • Climb into the cockpit of naval aircraft

  • Feel the thrill of flight simulators

  • Tread the spaces where sailors once bustled with activity

  • Explore over 30 meticulously restored aircraft spread out across nearly 10 acres of exhibits

These exhibits provide a tangible connection to the past.

Wander from the bridge, where decisions were made that shaped history, to the engine room, the heart of this powerful vessel. These experiences, set against the backdrop of downtown San Diego, are not just a testament to naval history; they’re a vibrant chapter in San Diego’s cultural narrative.

Educational Programs and Events

The USS Midway Museum offers educational programs for students from second to eighth grade. These programs cover a broad spectrum of subjects, including:

  • Mathematics

  • Science

  • Social studies

  • History

The programs are conducted within the museum’s state-of-the-art educational facilities on board. Discounted admission prices for student and youth groups make these educational visits affordable, fostering a new generation’s appreciation for history and technology.

Moreover, the museum extends its reach beyond its steel confines through distance learning programs, allowing students to experience its rich content from afar. For those seeking an unforgettable experience, the museum offers overnight programs where youth groups and families can sleep among the ghosts of Midway’s storied past.


Other Naval Attractions in San Diego


Image Credit: Mark Albertazzi

San Diego’s naval heritage doesn’t end with the Midway. The Maritime Museum of San Diego, renowned for its impressive fleet of historic vessels including the Star of India, stands as a beacon to maritime enthusiasts and history buffs alike. The USS Abraham Lincoln, another formidable Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, casts its shadow across the waters of Naval Air Station North Island, a sight to behold for those enchanted by naval might.

Naval Base San Diego, founded in 1922, has grown from a destroyer-focused establishment to a comprehensive support facility for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, now home to nearly a third of the Navy’s Pacific ships and over 150 tenant commands.

The Impact of the Aircraft Carrier on San Diego's Economy and Culture

Aircraft carriers like the USS Midway are more than just floating airfields; they are economic powerhouses. They create a multitude of jobs in tourism, defense, and service industries, fueling San Diego’s economy. The USS Midway Museum alone has emerged as an economic beacon for downtown San Diego, drawing in visitors from around the world and contributing significantly to the tourism sector.

But the influence of these carriers extends beyond monetary value; they are woven into the very fabric of San Diego’s identity, serving as cultural landmarks and forums for community engagement. Events like Veterans Day celebrations aboard the USS Midway remind San Diegans of their rich naval heritage, fostering a collective sense of pride and patriotism. The presence of the active-duty USS Carl Vinson further reinforces San Diego’s status as a ‘Navy Town,’ with a deep-seated connection to maritime traditions and the United States Navy.

Additionally, the educational outreach programs initiated by the USS Midway Museum play a vital role in enriching the local culture, inspiring citizens, and kindling the interest of younger generations in naval history.

Economic Contributions

San Diego’s economy is significantly buoyed by defense spending, with the sector supporting over 340,000 jobs and accounting for nearly a quarter of the local labor force. The military presence in the city provides direct employment to 148,000 residents across various facilities, solidifying the region’s economic foundation.

In addition, defense contracts are a boon to the local economy, with over 201,000 individuals employed across 1,700 companies, highlighting the broad impact of military investment in the community.

Cultural Significance

The USS Midway, affectionately referred to as America’s Living Symbol of Freedom, occupies a special place in the hearts of San Diegans. This vessel is not just an artifact of history; it embodies the spirit of freedom and service that resonates throughout the city. It stands as a proud reminder of the sacrifices made by those who served, and continues to be a focal point of cultural events, serving as a bridge between the city’s storied past and its vibrant present.

Aircraft Carriers in Modern Naval Operations

Today, aircraft carriers like the USS Carl Vinson remain at the forefront of naval operations, showcasing their versatility in combat and peacetime missions alike. These floating fortresses play a crucial role in maintaining international maritime security, particularly in contested waters such as the South China Sea, where the USS Carl Vinson’s presence underscores America’s commitment to the freedom of navigation and the rule of law.

Carrier Strike Group 1, led by the USS Carl Vinson, also engages in joint exercises with allies, reinforcing the United States’ dedication to maintaining a stable and secure Indo-Pacific region.

San Diego: A Hub for Naval History and Innovation

Beyond the storied decks of its ships, San Diego is a nexus of naval history and innovation, home to institutions like the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC). Established in 1959, NHRC conducts pivotal research in military medicine and psychology, supporting the health and performance of service members with a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses:

  • physiology

  • microbiology

  • biomedical engineering

  • psychology

  • epidemiology

  • software engineering

This center is a part of a broader network of Navy Medicine Research & Development facilities, which together underscore the city’s ongoing commitment to the well-being and readiness of those who protect our seas.


From its remarkable journey as a powerful instrument of war to its reinvention as a guardian of history, the USS Midway stands as a testament to San Diego’s naval pride and American innovation. The story of this vessel and its kin has woven a rich tapestry that extends beyond the confines of a ship, influencing the city’s economy, culture, and place in the world. As the sun sets on San Diego Bay, the USS Midway Museum remains a beacon of knowledge, a symbol of freedom, and a bridge connecting the past to a future where naval heritage continues to inspire and shape lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was the USS Midway Museum opened to the public?

The USS Midway Museum was opened to the public on June 7, 2004, after significant preservation work.

What kind of exhibits can I expect to see at the USS Midway Museum?

At the USS Midway Museum, visitors will see interactive exhibits that include the opportunity to explore naval aircraft, experience flight simulators, and tour different sections of the aircraft carrier, such as the bridge and engine room.

Are there any other naval attractions to see in San Diego?

Yes, San Diego offers other naval attractions such as the Maritime Museum with historic ships and the USS Abraham Lincoln, as well as Naval Base San Diego, which supports the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

How do aircraft carriers impact San Diego's economy?

Aircraft carriers have a significant impact on San Diego's economy by creating thousands of jobs in tourism, defense, and service industries. Defense spending supports over 340,000 jobs in the region.

Can students participate in educational programs at the USS Midway Museum?

Yes, students in grades 2-8 can participate in educational programs at the USS Midway Museum, with discounted group rates and distance learning options available.