Air Zoo in Kalamazoo
Southwest Michigan

Flying Through Aviation History At Air Zoo In Kalamazoo

I am a museum nerd. I love museums, and I especially love the history of space exploration. So when I got the chance to visit the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo — a museum of aerospace and science that shares the history of invention, innovation, war, and exploration through over 100 rare aircraft, spacecraft, and exhibits – I knew this was the place for me.

Photo by Anthony Rodgers.
Photo by Anthony Rodgers.

About the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo

Tucked away on the west side of the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport in Portage is one of Michigan’s treasures, a mecca for aviation enthusiasts young and old and an affiliate of the Smithsonian, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo.

The Air Zoo is a highly charged, multi-sensory atmosphere that goes beyond anything you’ve ever seen. It’s like no place else on Earth!

Voted the “Best Place to Take Out-of-Towners” and “Best Place to Spend a Day with Your Family” three years in a row, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo features more than 100 rare and historic air and space artifacts, amusement park-style rides, Full-Motion Flight Simulators, newly renovated Quonset hut-style Missions Theater, as well as historical exhibits and educational activities.

Opened in its current location in 1979, the Air Zoo has its roots in an aviation bug that caught founders Pete and Suzanne Parish in the late 1940s during service in the military, and wouldn’t let go. An initial purchase of a Beech 35C Bonanza (the same model aboard which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper met their untimely end) was followed by a Stearman, an AT-6, a Wildcat, and a P-40 Warhawk. In the 1970s, a friend offered them his Grumman Bearcat on one condition – that they open a museum to display it along with their own aircraft.

Photo by Anthony Rodgers.
Photo by Anthony Rodgers.

The original museum at 3101 East Milham Road was dubbed the “Air Zoo” because at that time, it included a Wildcat, a Hellcat, a Bearcat, and a Flying Tiger. As the collection grew, the museum expanded twice before opening a completely new, 120,000-sqft facility, its current location, in 2004. This facility now houses more than 50 aircraft, from the first wood and canvas fighters of WW1 to the SR-71 Blackbird and my personal favorite, the F-14 Tomcat. It is also home to the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, the National Guadalcanal Memorial Museum, an extensive space exploration exhibit, and another exhibit honoring the role of women in aviation and space.

Each of the two display campuses showcase beautifully restored aircraft, vehicles, uniforms, and aviation artifacts, as well as providing plenty of additional information using audio and video displays. The campuses also include a cockpit, space capsule, and space station mockups that you can climb into.

In addition to the displays, there are plenty of rides for kids of all ages, ranging from a Ferris Wheel, which gives a leisurely overhead view of the entire museum, to the fully-immersing 3D flight simulators (you will probably want to visit the Kitty Hawk Cafe after that one)!

Photo by Anthony Rodgers.
Photo by Anthony Rodgers.

The RealD 4D theater offers two programs: Salute to Heroes, in which the audience sees, hears, and feels the experience of a bombing raid over WWII Germany; and Fly Me To The Moon, an account of the Apollo 11 mission aimed at a younger audience.

After all of that, a large gift shop awaits, full of models, posters, clothing, and gifts for the aviation enthusiast, young and old.

The Air Zoo also offers a range of activities for educators and children, including field trips, birthday parties, summer camps, and an overnight experience, where kids can sleep under the belly of the giant SR-71 Blackbird.

The Kalamazoo Air Zoo is a one-of-a-kind experience right here in our back yard – strap on your goggles and get flying!

Cloud Tunnel - Air Zoo - The Awesome Mitten
In the Cloud Tunnel | Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Calkins

Visiting the Kalamazoo Air Zoo

When my friend and I entered the museum, we were greeted by a giant smile painted on a single-engine fighter plane suspended directly overhead. The friendly and informative gentleman at the front desk offered us a map and everything we would see inside, which started with a walkway surrounded by a mural of clouds. Traversing the cloud tunnel creates an almost surreal experience of being enveloped by the white, fluffy clouds that take you up to the sky — otherwise known as the main exhibition area of the Air Zoo.

Once there, we were surrounded by incredible stories of flight on this planet and beyond. Here are the three that stood out to us the most.

Wright Brothers vs. Glen Curtiss

Wright Flyer - Air Zoo - The Awesome Mitten
Wright Flyer Replica | Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Calkins

Exiting the hall to the left, we witness replicas and restorations of some of the earliest aircraft created. I had just watched a documentary about the Wright Brothers’ rivalry with Glen Curtis on Netflix called American Genius (Episode 2), so seeing these planes really brought that story to life. A replica of the Wright brothers famous flyer hangs overhead, and several of the other planes bare the name of Curtiss.

Making our way around the floor was like traveling through the earliest stages of aeronautics. Different sizes and types of single-engine planes cover the floor and and hang from the ceiling.

Colonel Jack A. Sims

Col. Jackson Sims' Flight Suit - Air Zoo - The Awesome Mitten
Col. Jackson Sims’ Flight Suit | Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Calkins

We were just in time for the 3D show featuring the story of Colonel Jack A. Sims. He was one of the Doolittle Raiders, a troop of 80 men who led America’s first air raid on Tokyo in 1942. Grab your 3D glasses and relax, but don’t get too comfortable because the seats move and make you feel like you’re part of the story. After the show, be sure to check out the exhibit featuring Sims’ uniform, flight suit, parachute pack, and more to read on the story of “Kalamazoo’s first flying hero.”

Wernher von Braun

Space Suit at Air Zoo - The Awesome Mitten
Space Suit at Air Zoo | Photo Rebecca Calkins

After continuing on through the rest of modern warfare aircraft, including a very interesting exhibit on the Guadalcanal Campaign, we finally moved on to my favorite part, SPACE!

The space section starts with a hallway of people who have inspired space exploration, such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edwin Hubble. One person in particular, Wernher von Braun, stands out thanks to another of my favorite shows, Drunk History (Season 3 Episode 13).

Von Braun dreamed of getting humans to space. However, he got his start by creating the V-2 rocket, a long-range missile, for Nazi Germany. He eventually made it to the United States after World War II, but still all of his rockets were used as instruments of war and not space exploration. Finally it was a collaboration with Walt Disney that helped Von Braun to inspire the American people, who were already starting to dream of what lies beyond. They created a short series of TV specials about the reality of space travel, weightlessness, and future trips to other planets. Von Braun was instrumental not only for Americans landing on the moon but in the continued dream of landing on Mars.

If it’s not already, the Air Zoo needs to be on your Michigan bucket list. It makes the perfect day trip, and even kids will love the exhibits as well as the aviation-themed carnival rides and flight simulators.

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