A Day at the Air Zoo

This last week I had the opportunity to spend most of the day at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo with my 13 year old nephew. This is the sort of day that can be enjoyed by different generations pretty easily.

The main display area of the Air Zoo

The main display area of the Air Zoo

This isn’t a huge museum.  We spent about four hours, and saw almost everything.  I’ve been a recurring visitor to this museum for over twenty years and it sure has changed a lot!  As is often the case, that’s not entirely for the good, from my perspective.  But I have no doubt the new museum is far better for my nephew than the old one would have been!  It is much more kid friendly, and has a far broader appeal than it did in the 1990s.  Of course that means its less focused on just World War II; and, what really makes me sad, it is no longer a flying collection.  Apparently that part of the organization’s mission was undone by rising insurance costs.  Perhaps that isn’t all bad, there’s always a risk in flying extremely rare, 70 year old airplanes.  But I remember seeing that mixed formation of Grumman ‘Cats, and the pink P-40 in the air.  It’s hard to accept that I’ll never see them again.

But the good is very good.  The new building is colorful and fun, with displays from the dawn of flight through the space age.  Plus full motion flight simulators and multi-media presentations.  And the heart of the collection remains a number of rare and unique vintage aircraft.

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Pink P-40 was the mount of Sue Parish, founder of the Kalamazoo Air Zoo.

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SBD-3 spent 40+ years in Lake Michigan after a war-time flying accident. It was restored as seen here by museum volunteers.

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P-39Q disguised as a P-400. Another Air Zoo artifact I saw fly many years ago.

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The Ha 1112 is a Bf 109G manufactured under licence in Spain. But with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine instead of a Daimler-Benz DB 605.

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The only surviving SR-71B. I saw this plane fly in 1997, shortly before it was retired from service.

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The Curtiss XP-55 Ascender. Three were built, this is the only one that remains. This was one of the museum’s higher profile restoration projects.

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This Grumman (General Motors) FM-2 Wildcat was pulled out of Lake Michigan several years back. It looks like it needs a little more work before it gets put on display! Apparently they have a five year plan…

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About atcDave

I'm 55 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 33 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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21 Responses to A Day at the Air Zoo

  1. Theresa says:

    Pretty Cool I bet you both had a very good time.

  2. Terry Brodin says:

    Did you ever have the opportunity to visit the Victory Air Museum in Mundelein, IL before it was forced to close? It was a collection of aircraft privately owned by Earl Reinert, who was a surplus aircraft parts entrepreneur into the 60’s. I was there last i believe in 1980.

    In all honesty it was more of a Mom/Pop museum made up of almost derelict aircraft. B-25, B-26 Invader, P-47M, HA-1112, Lodestar, FM-2 Wildcat, F6F fuselage, PBY aft fuselage, Spitfire in a crate and numerous other hulks and a hanger full of parts. Doesn’t sound like much, but I loved it. There was a $2 entry donation and he gave you the run of the place, letting you stick your head wherever it would fit! Even came out and asked me if I wanted to climb up and sit in the Thunderbolt. After awhile he invited me to sit in his museum office — his rendition of a RAF ready room, only he had a blue porcelian coffe pot on the pot belly stove instead of a tea kettle.While sipping boiled black coffee I asked questions and he talked and talked and talked while I took it all in. He loved to tantalize you with a mention of the other aircraft he had stored in out of the way locations and intended to bring to his museum. Perhaps he was just having fun pulling my leg, but he said enough that led me to belive he had hulk of a B-17 fire bomber, several other HA-112s, another Spitfire, a gutted LB-30, wings and the bombbay section of a B-26 Marauder. Most interesting was when he said he had acquired an almost complete F2A-3 Buffalo from a technical school, that the school had crated and put in storage!. When i pressed him for more information on the Buffalo, he just grinned and said “Maybe next time you stop by.”

    What else can I tell you. I had a wonderful cold November afternoon with a most fascinating man. I did make a return trip, but Earl wasn’t there. An elderly gentleman was equally as hospitable, but very closed mouth about Earl’s “other” aircraft — “You’d have to ask Earl ’bout that”‘.

    Like I said the Victory Air Museum was forced to close and is probably now covered with townhouse.
    I read the aircraft at the museum were sold off, but I have to wonder about his “other” aircraft, especially the Buffalo. Are they still tucked away somewhere — I sure hope so!

    • atcDave says:

      Wow, no I’m not familiar with it. That sounds like quite an experience! I do wonder what happened to all those hulks. I bet many have been fully restored as museum exhibits. But I suspect he was pulling your leg about the Buffalo. I’ve not heard any rumblings about such a thing, which proves nothing (!), but really makes me doubt the story. If an F2A-3 were available, I think many people would be fighting over it.

      • atcDave says:

        So Terry I did a little research and it does look like much of this collection has been preserved as static displays at other museums. It sounds like one or more of the Ha1112s and a Twin Beech may be flying again.
        It also looks like Earl liked telling the Buffalo story, but no one currently seems to know anything about it.

        So one of those fun little enigmas. Earl and his museum certainly seem to have preserved some valuable artifacts, even if it was never exactly a modern sort of display.

  3. Terry Brodin says:

    Like I said, Earl loved to talk. I’m sure he told the same things to anyone who wanted to sit and listen. By no means was I implying he was to presenting me with the Holy Grail.
    I’m sure some of what he said was true. After all I wasn’t sitting in a bar when he was telling me this, but in his “ready room” with his backyard full of aircraft! Yet I’m sure the “tall tail” aspects certainly got embelished each time he talked to someone. I suppose I’ve always held onto it just as I kmow there is no Santa Claus —- but it sure would be nice if there was.
    The Victory Air Museum certainly would not have won awards, but like Walter Soplata, Earl certainly had the foresight to save historic artifacts from the scrapyards. I suppose we can tcut him some slack if he stretched the truth sometimes.
    It was indeed an experience I’ll always remember. Even the “junk” he had in the hanger was captivating. Compared to a Wright Cyclone engone mounted on display, there’s just something different about seeIng one in a brownd, aged crate with “Wright Aeronautical Corp” stenciled on the side of it — and being able to touch it!
    Keep Earl in mind if a crated F2A-3 Buffalo ever does surface —- sometimes fairytales come true!
    If it ever does, I can picture Earl with a “I told you so” grin on his face.

    • atcDave says:

      Oh yeah, never say never. My father-in-law has a Corvair in the back of his pole barn covered in tarps. I understand its been covered for 40+ years. He means to do something with it someday…

      It is tantalizing. It reminds me a lot of Edward Maloney’s old “Planes of Fame Museum”. I understand Earl’s family still owns much of the property and several decrepit structures on it. And there’s always the possibility he stashed it elsewhere, or sold it under the table, or who knows!

      The Buffalo does seem to be a Holy Grail for a lot of us. I sure hope one surfaces someday, somewhere.

  4. Luis says:

    The Buffalo was involved in a hanger fire and was destroyed , it had come from the great lakes technical school and was missing the tail section

  5. J. Allseits says:

    My family had a business in Mundelein, so was very familiar with the place.
    Earl and a buddy were killed in crash, taking aerial photos of the Museum one evening; did not find them till the next morning, sticking straight up in a bean field…They had removed a side door, and misjudged the drag; stalled out.
    Earl had arranged for “good homes” for most aircraft, with the rest sold off…
    Always heard he had “picked the bones” of the dump at Wright Pat in Ohio, right after the war… so most items were “slightly used”… 😉 John Allseits (Freeport, IL)

    • atcDave says:

      Very interesting. Sad story, but informative!

      • J. Allseits says:

        A minor update: The owner who was killed was Paul Polidori (7/85). Earl Reinert was his partner in the museum.

        At least one of those Hispano ME109’s was sold to the Messerschmidt Factory in Germany, when they were restoring their flying example. Picked it up by the tailwheel, towed it to O’hare, opened up a Lufthansa cargo 747, and slid all the pieces right in! My neighbor (a pal of Polidori) helped, and was SO impressed that Lufthansa, by German labor laws, was required to give their ground personel a “beer break”, every 2 hours! No fooling! John Allseits (Freeport, IL)

      • atcDave says:

        That’s a cool story! Do you know, was it restored as an Ha1112 or a Bf109?

      • J. Allseits says:

        Neither…Used as spares for the Bf109 restoration that was underway. Remember, those were original German airframes the Spanish started with, in spite of using RR Merlin engines after the war…
        John Allseits

      • atcDave says:

        I knew they started as Bf109s but I wasn’t sure how useful they would still be after years of operational flying in Spain.
        But that is all good to hear. It does amaze me how many Messerschmidts are in the air these days. Its not too surprising the Spanish planes would have some role in that.

      • J. Allseits says:

        Those Hispanos were still operational, when the movie company acquired them for “Battle of Britain” around 1968…Before the Spanish military allowed them to be sold & exported, they were “demilled” by cutting all the electrical bundles between the wings & fuselage…that’s the way they were when stored in Mundelein, including the one returned to Germany. John Allseits

      • atcDave says:

        That’s a pretty good operational life!
        I imagine they went through some serious rebuilds though, not just new engines.
        I know the Swiss were using both Bf109Es and Bf109Gs in 1945, but they pretty quickly retired the Gs. Thanks to slave labor they weren’t very well made.
        So the Spanish invested some serious effort in keeping them flying.

      • J. Allseits says:

        Actually, these were NEW airframes, the Germans had provided to Franco earlier in the war; sort of Axis “lend-lease”… A warehouse fire destroyed all the Daimler engines Adolf had provided, so Franco purchased RR Merlins. This explains the odd engine cowlings; the RR engines were upright, NOT inverted, of course… Cause of this, some aircraft were marked as Spitfires for the movie. John Allseits

      • atcDave says:

        Yes but “new” in 1944 (‘45?). Not a good time for axis quality control!
        And I believe the Merlin deal was reached after the war, when there was no chance of getting new engines from Germany.

      • J. Allseits says:

        Correct on the Merlin engines. But the airframe/engine deal with Spain occurred a few years earlier in the war; why the DB 605’s were sitting in a warehouse… Also after the war, someone in eastern Europe (Czechs or Yugoslavs?) who had been producing Bf109s, contracted to sell Israel some 109s. Another (or same?) warehouse fire destroyed all remaining stocks of the DB605 engines before those aircraft were completed, so the airframes were fitted with a REALLY unsuitable Jumo engine intended for twin engine bombers. This in spite of rotating the “wrong” way for the airframe; 109 airframes were “compensated” to cancel the torque of standard engines… The resulting fighter was a real “pig”, that the Israelis learned to despise… John Allseits

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah the Czech S-199 is an amazing turkey of a plane!
        I hadn’t noted the coincidence about warehouse fires.

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