What do you get when you take 100 years worth of air and space flight history, an armada of fully restored warplanes and fighter jets, and throw in a 4-D theater, a bunch of full motion, flight simulators, a 3-D space shuttle ride, and a smattering of indoor amusement park rides? Answer: The Air Zoo of Kalamazoo, Mich.— an aviation museum like no other.
Wildcat. Bearcat. Flying Tiger. Blackbird. There’s the rare “desert pink” Curtiss P-40 Warhawk hanging in the lobby and a real F14 Tomcat of the sort made famous in the movie Top Gun. Air Zoo public relations and marketing manager Dani Nicholl says that in 1999, when the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum was trying to come up with a playfully inspired new name, they simply needed to look at some of their most popular exhibits.
“The World War II-era Grumman Wildcat, Bearcat and Hellcat were some of original planes Suzanne and Pete Parish put on display when they opened the museum back in 1979,” says Nicholl. “It’s sort of a play on that.”
Before it became a zoo
Sue and Pete Parish were ex-military aviators before starting the museum with just seven aircraft and a handful of aviation artifacts. Pete was a former Marine Air Corps pilot, and Suzanne, who passed away last year at age 87, was a member of the WWII-era Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
Flash forward through the ‘90s. The museum was chosen as the home of the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. By 2004, the Air Zoo had grown into what it is today: the 10th largest nongovernmental air museum in the United States — “a museum of the future” with 360-degree, full-motion flight simulators, the Midwest's first 4-D theatre, indoor amusement park rides, a 3-D space shuttle ride to the International Space Station, continuous traveling exhibits (including many from the Smithsonian Institution), a hand-painted indoor mural that covers 28,800 square feet, and scores and scores of rare and historic aircraft and space vehicle replicas that combine a sense of history with fun and adventure.
From the small-scale replica of a space shuttle capsule to the popular Zero G ride, there are dozens of reasons why this unique museum has been called the “best place to spend a day with your family.”
The Air Zoo is home to the world’s only remaining SR-71B Blackbird and XP-55 Ascender.
“The Air Zoo has some extremely rare aircraft, in addition to a variety of World War II aircraft, such as a B-25 Mitchell and P-47 Thunderbolt,” Nicholl says. “We have aircraft from the beginning of aviation, spanning all the way through World War II and modern-day planes. Visitors from all over the U.S. come to see our aircraft collection.”
Last year the Air Zoo had about 130,000 visitors, according to Nicholl. General admission has been free at the Air Zoo since the summer of 2009 and, as more people vacation closer to home, the Air Zoo has seen an uptick in visitors from surrounding states.
In fact, business has been so good that the Air Zoo is currently in the midst of a 50,000 square-foot expansion. While the Air Zoo’s East Campus — home to most of its space exhibits, related rides and many of its most popular World War II planes — is currently closed in preparation of transferring everything to the new expansion, Nicholl says there’s plenty to do in the meantime.
“From the Montgolfier Balloon Race to our 4-D Missions Theater, to more than 30 rare and historic aircraft, the Air Zoo’s main campus has something fun for everyone,” says Nicholl.
Planes of the Last Great War
Space exhibits may grab some headlines, but the Air Zoo’s collection of historic planes and artifacts remains a big draw for visitors.
After you get elbow to wingtip with some of these legends of flight, climb into one of the WWII flight simulators, where you can be the pilot or gunner (with an unlimited supply of ammo) after you take off and hunt for enemy aircraft. Arcade-like fun, for sure. But everything at the Air Zoo has an educational bent. And it gets even better come June.
Nicholl says the Air Zoo’s new 1.8 million dollar expansion will relocate not only the Michigan Space Science Center but also the Air Zoo’s World War II naval aviation exhibits. The project will move these attractions from their current East campus location to the main campus, providing space for new exhibits, aircraft, a 4,000 square-foot archive and an expanded library.
In the future, the Restoration Center will move to the East campus, allowing visitors to see and participate in the restoration process of new planes destined to become exhibits in the museum.
For a full events calendar, hours, admissions fees, and lists of things to see and do, check out the Air Zoo website.