Up Front

Five Faves – Air Zoo

'Space guy' picks favorite Air Zoo treasures
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This historic globe is from 1932.

Happy 40th birthday to the Air Zoo! In 1979, when the Air Zoo first opened its doors to the public, founders Pete and Sue Parish laid the foundation for what has become one of the most entertaining and educational aerospace and science experiences in the world. When I first walked through its iconic cloud tunnel six years ago, that unmatched immersion in an air and space museum mixed with entertaining theme park attractions mixed with educational inspiration just blew me away, as it still does each time I enter the Air Zoo. Here are just a few of my favorite jewels that launch my own passion every day:

Historic Globe

The Air Zoo has a collection of more than 100,000 artifacts and archives related to military, aviation and space history. Flying helmets, military medals, spacesuits and more line the shelves of our collections, providing remarkable opportunities to bring history to life for people of all ages. Each time I walk through the collections halls, I must stop to see a beautiful Rand McNally globe from 1932 that has the original signatures of some of the world’s most influential aviators, as well as tracings of the famous flights they took. Orville Wright (who invented the airplane with his brother, Wilbur, and flew the first free, controlled flight), Roger Q. Williams (who made a record-breaking flight from Maine to Rome), and Jack Harding (who piloted the first plane to fly around the world) are just a few of the aviation heroes who make this globe an inspirational treasure of living history.

Related article: Back Story: Meet Troy Thrash, CEO, Air Zoo

Powering Us into the Skies … and Beyond

The Air Zoo has a remarkable collection of engines, from those that helped early aviation pioneers first feel the freedom of flight to those that launched our brave astronauts into low Earth orbit and beyond. Being a “space guy” since recieving my first telescope at age 7, I’ve had no more powerful experience than standing below and looking up through our Rocketdyne F-1 engine. It is amazing to consider that just one F-1 engine provided more thrust than all three main space shuttle engines combined, and it took five F-1s to get the 6-million-pound, 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket from the Earth to the moon. What an experience to stand where three tons of fuel were burned a second by each engine to ensure that our astronauts broke the bonds of gravity to explore this new world!

Restoring History to Its Former Glory

During World War II, the Navy trained 15,000 new pilots to take off and land on aircraft carriers using two cruise ships on the waters of Lake Michigan. From 1942-1945, 120 aircraft were lost to the bottom of the lake. Since the early 1990s, 40 of these historically significant aircraft have been recovered. The Air Zoo is currently restoring two of these, including an SBD Douglas Dauntless dive bomber. This airplane, a photoreconnaissance version that is the only one of its kind left in the world, served at Pearl Harbor and in the Battle of the Coral Sea during the war. Seventy-five Air Zoo restoration volunteers and more than 300 students and other members of the public are helping to bring this airplane back to life right on our exhibit floor. With about 16 months of work remaining before the SBD goes to its permanent home at the Pacific Aviation Museum, in Hawaii, there is still time left for you to see and take part in returning the SBD to its former glory.

Airplanes and Rockets and Spacecraft, Oh My!

Did you know the Air Zoo got its name because the first five airplanes in its collection were named after cats (like Wildcat and Flying Tiger)? We’ve grown and now have more than 100 airplanes, rockets and spacecraft on public display. Choosing a favorite is quite difficult when considering the likes of the Ford Tri-Motor (first commercial passenger aircraft), the B-25 bomber (used in the infamous Doolittle Raid over Tokyo during World War II) or the SR-71B Blackbird (the fastest plane ever flown). No doubt, though, that the sleek and beautiful workhorse of World War II, the P-47 Thunderbolt, is at the top. The P-47 was the heaviest single-engine fighter in the war. It didn’t have the greatest range, but its ruggedness and dependability made it a very effective interceptor of enemy aircraft. It didn’t get the glory of the P-51s or B-24s, but it still had a significant influence on the Allied victory.

Interactive Experiences

The Air Zoo continues to add to its interactive science, engineering and flight experiences for people of all ages. For me, the greatest year-round interactive flight experience is in the Air Zoo’s state-of-the-art flight simulators. Fly alone or with another reasonable adult and experience, in 2-D or 3-D, the majesty of flight from take-off through high-altitude soaring. Give a child the controls and you just might feel like you’re pulling a couple of Gs through rapid climbing or barrel rolls. These simulators were the first Air Zoo experience I had with my children on my second visit to interview for my job. After a rather adventurous flight we took together, my son, Gavin, jumped out of the simulator yelling, “Dad, you HAVE to work here!”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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About our author: Troy Thrash

Troy Thrash

Troy Thrash is the president and CEO of the Air Zoo aerospace and science experience and has had a lifelong fascination with the great blue yonder. He has a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and astrophysics from Villanova University and had a long career in the aerospace industry, including working on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and as executive director for the National Aerospace Development Center. He has also volunteered with FIRST Robotics, the Civil Air Patrol, and Galaxy Explorers and served with the federal Interagency Task Force on Aerospace Workforce Revitalization, the Center for the Future of Museums, and the Aerospace States Association. Perhaps you also saw him on the Kalamazoo Civic stage as Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein.