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 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 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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7 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.

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