The Air Zoo, an Extraordinary Aerospace Destination

By Scott Spangler on October 4th, 2021

Mostly because of its alterative name, I’ve known about the Kalamazoo Air Zoo for decades, but despite a number of trips to mitten Michigan on other assignments, I never made time to visit its home at the southwest corner of the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. If you’re considering a visit, don’t make my mistake and think the Zoo is just another small-market museum.

Far from it. The Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience is an extraordinary, must visit aerospace destination that embodies the premier elements of well known and visited destinations such at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and the national museums of naval aviation and air force with unique combination of inclusive, hands-on experiences unavailable at any other institution I’ve ever visited (and as my wife will attest, I’ve visited way too many of them).

At EAA AirVenture this year I ran into the hulk of an SBD-1 fished out of Lake Michigan in 1994 after its last, and unsuccessful operation in 1942 on the training carrier USS Wolverine during World War II. It was on a trailer, bound for restoration at the Zoo. Knowing that the Navy is finickily particular about its aerial artifacts and the institutions it deals with, it drove me to plan a visit. Learning that the Zoo is the only civilian institution with a F-117 that it is restoring on its exhibit floor made a visit imperative.

This was not an easy decision. From my home outside of Oshkosh, as the crow flies, Kalamazoo is 190 miles away. If you’re not a crow, driving over the top of Lake Michigan covers 589 miles; driving under it 330 miles. Either way, it’s an all-day drive thanks to the toll roads and eternal traffic of the Chicago metroplex. We split the difference and splurged on the SS Badger, the car ferry and National Historic Landmark that connects US 10 between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan.

Research did not emotionally prepare me for the Zoo. An airplane I’d first met in 1976, Sue Parrish’s Pink P-40N, filled the atrium airspace in the Flight Innovation Center. With her husband, Pete, a World War II Marine aviator, Sue, a WASP, co-founded the Zoo in 1979. I met her and her airplane when she visited her friend and sister WASP, who operated the flight school at Long Beach, California, where I was learning to fly. On the walls that protected the P-40 were banners for upcoming events, including weekend cockpit crawls in different airplanes during September.

Troy Thrasher, the Zoo’s president and CEO since 2013, led me down a serpentine cloud tunnel that led to the main exhibit hall, which opened in 2004. The wide-open panorama stopped me dead. With so much to take in, my brain disconnected from everything but my eyes. Tracing the history of flight from the first hot air aeronauts to space exploration the Zoo synergistically coordinated its artifacts with a 30,000-square foot hand painted mural created by two artists over 11 months.

Artists had similarly painted the exhibit hall’s floor. Grass and pavers covered the left side of the hall that spanned early aviation to World War II. Setting on It were a Sopwith Camel and Spad from World War I, a Ford Trimotor, B-25, and the world’s only surviving Curtiss XP-55 Ascender. Amidships was the bow of the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) with an F-14 nose-down and ready for launch. Next to it was an F-8, with an F-18 cued up for the catapult. Above and behind them was the carrier’s island. And to their right was the world’s only surviving SR-71B, the two-seat Blackbird.

The main exhibit hall was designed “to be a different environment for an air and space museum,” said Thrasher, describing it as part museum and part theme park with four rides, in balloons, biplanes, and parachutes. “People who love airplanes love airplanes. At the same time, there are so many people who don’t realize that they love the science and technology behind the airplane, and their history as well. So, we designed this space to display different reasons for people to come to the Zoo.”

Describing the diversity of the regional and Kalamazoo community, “we want everyone, especially young people, to see themselves reflected in these heroes of aviation and space that we celebrate,” said Thrasher. “A small piece of that is this Smithsonian exhibit called Black Wings, American Dreams of Flight. It traces the history of Black Americans from Bessie Coleman to Mae Jemison and Ronald McNair.”

The Zoo crew continues to expand the big women in aviation and space exhibits that are situated throughout the museum and highlight women from the “real riveting Rosies of World War II” to today, Thrasher continued. Exploring later on my own, the mural, among other things, subtly but without equivocation, reinforced the level of detail the museum employed to reflect the community it serves. While airplanes of the different eras fly on the mural near the exhibit hall ceiling, families and individuals enjoying picnics at the floor level make it clear all are welcome here.

To be continuedIf you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor

 

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