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Dream, Inspire and Remember

Dream, Inspire and Remember

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Interview with CEO Kyle Cozad, RADM, USN (Ret.)

Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad is the current President and Chief Executive Officer of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. Following a service-connected spinal cord injury in 2018, RADM Cozad recovered and returned to full service, completing his final three years of active duty as the Navy’s only wheelchair-bound flag officer. During that time, he became an advocate for disability awareness and competed in the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games. Since his injury, in addition to supporting Naval Aviation history and heritage, RADM Cozad has dedicated countless hours mentoring other spinal cord injury victims through their individual recoveries.

A 1985 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, RADM Cozad’s Naval career centered around aviation training and operations. He served as an instructor pilot in numerous operational and training tours worldwide. Throughout his career, RADM Cozad held command positions within naval aviation and joint multi-service operations, including five critical Command assignments. Ashore, he served in diverse leadership roles within the Navy and Department of Defense, notably serving as the 22nd Senior Director in the White House Situation Room, Commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, and Commander of the Naval Education and Training Command.

In your book, Relentless Positivity, you share your story regarding your service-connected injury. You subsequently returned to active duty as the Navy’s only wheelchair-bound flag officer. Why was it important to you to complete this last tour of duty?

I’ve always been driven by a sense of service – and that desire to continue to serve, despite doctors’ suggestions to the contrary, was a source of inspiration for me to push every day to restore as much normalcy to my life as possible. As I became stronger, and more independent, I said, “Why not? Why can’t I continue to serve? Fortunately, senior Navy leaders agreed and, in doing so, validated the fact that I was valued NOT because of my mobility – but because of my ability to lead complex operations in a variety of missions.

Joining the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation was a natural extension of my active-duty service. Here, I have a chance to make a difference. Here, I have a chance to demonstrate to people that through hard work, personal resolve, and a passion for the mission – anything is possible. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once told a group of college students:

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk – crawl. But whatever you do – keep moving forward.” I’ve chosen to keep moving forward…

What influenced your decision to accept the position as CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation?

After 35 years serving the Navy, primarily in Naval Aviation, when I was offered to join the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation as CEO in October of 2020, I literally had to pinch myself. My position allows me to maintain a close connection to Naval Aviation in a different yet similar capacity from my time in uniform. Every day, working with this dedicated team, we support initiatives that benefit the National Naval Aviation Museum and our incredible STEM Education outreach programs, which fall under the National Flight Academy. Whether inspiring future Top Gun pilots or preserving Naval Aviation’s heritage, I am proud to sustain this world-class mission. We aim to Dream, Inspire and Remember – the same elements that fueled my internal flame when I was a high school student looking for my path after graduation. Today, this job has brought me full circle: from the wide-eyed young man in 1981 who had the yearning to fly for his country, to that guy who now gets to help inspire kids to serve their country, make a positive difference for our Nation, and do so in a way that is second to none in terms of “cool factor!”

Anyone who spends time in Northwest Florida has heard of the National Naval Aviation Museum. What is less well known is the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. What is the Foundation’s role with the National Naval Aviation Museum?

The Foundation plays a crucial role in supporting the National Naval Aviation Museum, National Flight Academy, DoD STARBASE Pensacola, and the Flight Adventure Deck — all of which advances STEM education for our nation’s youth. 

Established in 1966 as the Naval Aviation Museum Association, the Foundation received tax-exempt status to independently raise funds for the Museum’s expansion and outreach, unfettered by restrictions on official Navy activities. 

Renamed in 1975 to the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation to reflect its significant growth and evolving mission, the Foundation continues to drive fundraising efforts for both the National Naval Aviation Museum and the National Flight Academy, supporting various STEM and Education outreach programs. All Foundation funding, aside from staffing and operational costs, contributes to STEM program development as well as the Museum’s expansion, aircraft preservation, conservation and maintenance, development of new exhibits and support of day-to-day functions.

Why is fundraising for the museum important?

Fundraising for the museum is essential for several reasons. As a National Museum which resides on federal property aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola – we don’t charge admission or parking fees. We rely on visitors’ purchases at our Flight Deck Store, our Flight line during Blue Angel practices, our movie theater and concession stand, or through our various aircraft simulators to help offset our annual operating costs. 

This revenue alone, however, is not enough to fund state- of-the-art exhibits or facility improvements. That’s where our fundraising mission becomes critical. Through corporate and individual donations, including planned giving and estate donations, we can sustain our reputation as a “world-class” aviation museum. These contributions enable us to add new aircraft, representing the second century of Naval Aviation and develop new interactive exhibits that appeal to young and old visitors alike.

Without the generosity of our donors, our ability to ‘Dream, Inspire and Remember’ would be severely diminished.

How much has the Foundation raised over the past 50 years? What has that accomplished?

Originally housed in an 8,500-square-foot, wood-framed building constructed during World War II, with room to display only eight aircraft, it was a modest start for the Museum when it first opened its doors on June 8, 1963. Since its inception, the Foundation has raised over $100 million, supporting the evolution into today’s expansive 37-acre campus. Within the museum’s current 350,000 square feet of exhibit space are more than 150 meticulously-restored historic aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviation. 

In addition to the museum, the Foundation has invested nearly $40 million constructing the National Flight Academy – the centerpiece of its STEM education outreach mission. Replicating a modern aircraft carrier, children from around the world come to learn in this immersive, world-class educational environment.

What youth educational programs are available through the Foundation/Museum?

In line with our mission to “Dream, Inspire and Remember,” the Foundation offers a range of youth educational programs focused on STEM and aviation-themed activities that benefit children from 5th grade through high school. 

STARBASE Pensacola, designed for 5th graders, provides 25 curriculum hours on board the AMBITION, our aircraft carrier-themed “schoolhouse,” over five days. Co-sponsored by the Department of Defense and hosted by the Foundation, STARBASE Pensacola supports 32 local Title 1 elementary schools. Given the hands-on nature of instruction within this one-of-a-kind facility – needless to say, the kids love it! 

Our Flight Adventure Deck caters to local area middle school students through immersive demonstrations that teach aviation-related STEM themes, benefiting nearly 15,000 students to date.

Our capstone outreach program is the National Flight Academy (NFA). NFA serves junior and senior high students nationally and internationally in an immersive aviation adventure where they plan, coordinate, and fly missions using 45 networked simulators, mission planning and mission control rooms. AMBITION is a fully self-contained facility with overnight accommodations and dining that rivals any STEM academy within the United States. 

Where do you see the Museum going in the next 10 years? 

It’s no secret that to remain relevant, museums must appeal to a variety of visitors. What may appeal to a 65-year-old veteran may not hold the same level of interest to a senior in high school. Our visitors have proven a desire for greater interactivity and immersion to assist in their learning process. That is where my focus lies. 

We are often faced with the decision to become “bigger or better.” I want to attain new ways to tell the story of Naval Aviation to create optimal conditions for each and every visitor, whether a seasoned veteran or a first timer. 

Naval Aviation is in an unprecedented era of modernization within each and every squadron, air wing and group. Just as Naval Aviation continues to advance and improve, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation is committed to paralleling that progress in how we tell its story.

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