Open Cockpits, Stepping into History at the Air Zoo

By Scott Spangler on December 27th, 2021

Admiring historic airplanes from a museum floor is a big-picture perspective of their contributions, whatever they may be, to aviation. Regardless the aeronautical era or the scope of the story, the viewer’s mind readily puts the winged artifact before you into some cinematic environment. The only way to truly gain the perspective of the individuals who gave any airplane life is to look out from the inside. Gaining access to cabins and cockpits is easier in larger aircraft, and if you can afford it, a number of organizations complete the connection with a living history flight. Such access to single-seat aircraft is essentially nonexistent, unless you’re in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the annual Open Cockpit event at the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience.

Traditionally held every weekend in February (and occasionally one weekend into March) since its inauguration in 2013, COVID-19 moved it to every weekend in September 2021, said Troy Thrash, president and CEO. Whether the 2022 event returns to February or repeats in September depends on the virus’s raging mutations, he said, and the Air Zoo’s website and Facebook page will provide plenty of advance notice. Open Cockpit is free with the museum’s paid admission, and there are few restrictions: To protect these historic artifacts, cockpit climbers can weigh no more than 250 pounds. “Visitors must also have the ability to enter and exit the aircraft unassisted. Children wishing to sit in the aircraft must be supervised by their parents/guardians.”

Settling into the seat of the FM-2 Wildcat, the first surprise was that I fit (and sticking to the calorie-counting diet I started a decade ago that trimmed 50 pounds from my 6-foot-5 frame was again rewarded). Carefully taking the controls and looking straight ahead my memory replayed one of the only stories my father shared with me of his experiences as a World War II naval aviator. With a 180-degree turn from downwind to final to the USS Wolverine as it paddled its way into the Lake Michigan wind, “the flight deck disappeared beneath the cowl, the last thing you saw was the landing signal officer giving you the cut, and from there you hoped to hit hard and stop.” Until taking this seat, I couldn’t conceive this image, now it all made sense, and it bonded a new layer of respect for him and his understated accomplishments when he was just 20.

Each year the Air Zoo decides which cockpits to open, said Thrash, “mixing and matching them each year so we our guests can enjoy their favorites and we can introduce them to some new aircraft,” such as the Ryan PT-22, Grumman Mallard seaplane, and P-39. Some, like the FM-2 Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, and FG-1D Corsair are in rotation with the airplanes people look forward do each year such as the Ford Trimotor, B-25 Mitchell, and P-47 Thunderbolt. Some cockpits, including the SBD Dauntless, Mig-15, and SR-71B, are open only for viewing, because they are on loan from their respective military museums.

Each open cockpit is overseen by a team composed of Air Zoo staffers and volunteers. The person at the head of the line (and there’s always a line, Trash said) talks about the airplane’s history and specifications, and another one or two at or near the cockpit to guide people safely in and out, where to put their hands and feet, and to make sure people don’t fiddle with levers and switches. “We don’t worry about that too much, because people, even the kids, are remarkably respectful of the airplanes,” Thrash said. “The understand they are climbing into history and they treat the opportunity with reverence.”

When COVID moved Open Cockpits to September, the Air Zoo filled the space with a new event, Panels Off. “Our restoration team removes panels and cowlings from aircraft throughout the museum, so people can see under their skin,” said Thrash, “see what makes them go and understand how they are put together.” One of the most revealing is the T-6 Texan, which is welded steel tube fuselage that’s covered with removeable aluminum sheet metal skins.

The inaugural Panels Off was well received in February 2021, Thrash said, and it will return next year, either in February or September, opposite of the annual Open Cockpits event. “Stay turned to the Air Zoo’s website and Facebook page for scheduling.”

Happy New Year!

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