We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive to where we started
And know the place for the first time
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to get my feet off the ground and fly. As a young boy, long before E.T., I envisioned putting wings on my bike and zipping down my suburban Detroit sidewalk, lifting above the rows of houses and off into the countryside. Part of it was the mechanical tinkerer within me, given my upbringing in the shadow of Henry Ford’s Rouge complex. But part of it was much deeper…..
My real desire to soar came from my father. Dad was a pilot in WWII, and he trained in Stearman biplanes. To watch his face when he spoke of his time in the cockpit was a treat; his eyes actually sparkled. Even into his eighties, he would say “Jimmer, it is like riding a bike. I could climb in there and fly one today”. His explanation of aircraft systems…ailerons, rudder, throttle, elevator…left me without a doubt that I could step in for an incapacitated pilot and land a plane in one piece.
With that being said, aviation museums have always caught my interest. In southwest Michigan, we are fortunate to have a very good living history aviation collection in Kalamazoo named the Air Zoo. Diana and I made the pilgrimage their this last weekend. This was a favorite place for her to bring school groups in her days as an educator.
This unique place was founded by Pete and Sue Parish in 1977. Sue was a WWII WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot). She also was a spitfire of a character, and was well known in Kalamazoo.
Her pink P-40 Warhawk hangs in the lobby of the Air Zoo. As a student at Western Michigan University (just up the road), I was privileged to see her zip overhead in the early 1980’s. The sound of that Allison V-12 engine alone was enough for me to stop dead in my tracks and peer skyward. At the time, I did not know her history as a WASP. What an honor to now know that I saw a legend in action.
The assortment of planes in the main room of the Air Zoo is impressive.
There is a replica of the Wright flyer, complete with Wilbur at the controls.
For all the Top Gun fans, there is an F-14 Tomcat.
This seaplane brings visions of Fantasy Island.
All sorts of aviation are represented; here is a German Buzz Bomb, so famous for raining terror on London.
The Air Zoo has the only remaining SR-71B in existence. This plane was one of two trainers used to train pilots to fly the other thirty SR-71A’s. These planes were the fastest air-breathing planes ever to fly.
One of my favorites is this beautiful B-25J Mitchell bomber. Dad ended up as a tail gunner in these fine aircraft in the Philippines. When I was at Western, I talked a pilot into letting me climb into the cockpit of the Yankee Air Force’s Yankee Warrior. Everything Dad talked about was right there for me to see. Recently, through the magic of YouTube, I was able to sit in a B-25 tail gunner position in flight. That experience really brought home what those guys went through back then. A link to the video appears at the end of the post.
The design of the plane was such that the gunner could see over the entire fuselage of the plane, even though only being able to shoot rearward.
As you can see, it is not an easy place to get to. The thought of allowing one’s self to assume a position in the tail and have enemy aircraft shooting at you commands the utmost respect in my book.
At any given time throughout the museum, various veterans can be found. These gentlemen are willing to share their stories of their time in service to our country. There is also a small library with stories written by veterans, in regards to their experiences.
Another feature of the Air Zoo are flight simulators. These are always popular with school groups. There are also aviation-themed amusement rides for younger children.
To the rear of the main room of the Air Zoo, there are two smaller hangers. One has a collection of Navy planes, along with other assorted aircraft. This is an early trainer used by the Blue Angels.
One of the more interesting planes in the Navy collection is a Douglas SBD-3 Dautless. The Air Zoo’s plane flew many combat missions, and eventually found it’s way to a training carrier deck moored off of Chicago. During one landing, the pilot missed the trip wire and ended up in the lake.
After 50 years in the murky depths, the plane was recovered and brought to the Air Zoo in 1993. After a decade of painstaking restoration….
…this is the result. To say the staff members at the museum are good at their craft is a total understatement. The Dauntless is not the only aircraft pulled from Lake Michigan’s waters by the Air Zoo, and the results of their efforts are just as amazing.
The other hanger houses space exploration artifacts. Here I am in a mockup of a Mercury capsule. While the space exhibits are mostly mockups and recreations, there are a few interesting pieces.
Kalamazoo has it’s very own moon rock. This is a nice little cross section, and you are able to see the porosity of the rock.
There is also a J-2 rocket engine. The J-2 is the engine NASA used on the second and third stages of the Saturn V moon rockets. This particular engine was used for testing, and actually ran at full power for a total of just under an hour. It was one of these engines on each Apollo mission that was responsible for kicking the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and on towards the moon. That ability makes this particular engine a significant piece of history.
In a smaller room off of the main room of the Air Zoo, there is a tribute to the WASPs. These women flew supply and training missions for the Army, thereby freeing up male pilots for combat. They had to pay their own way to Texas for training, and also their way home after the program was disbanded. The 38 pilots who died in service were also dependent on their families to get their remains home, and their caskets were not afforded the honor of having an American flag draped over them. Almost every type of aircraft that was produced during WWII was flown by WASPs at some point. The only thing they did not fly were combat missions. That’s not to say they weren’t shot at, as they towed anti-aircraft gunnery targets. These women didn’t do it for the glory. They did it because they loved to fly. Over 25,000 women applied to become WASPs, and just over 1000 were accepted for the program. Eventually, they were recognized as veterans. It wasn’t until 2009 that the women of this organization were finally honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
Here I am in front of a Stearman trainer, just like Dad flew. As stated earlier, my dad went from being a pilot to becoming a tail gunner. In discussions with him about that, he stated to me that his instructor and him did not see eye to eye. My father, being an only child, was quite independent. I’m sure there is a lot I did not grasp, but my understanding is that the final straw came when he was flying solo towards the field and his engine quit.
Protruding from the upper wing is a clear tube. That is a fuel gauge. Dad said he saw dirt swirling in the gauge, and that bad fuel is what was later found to have clogged the fuel line. Well, the field was right in front of him, so he feathered the prop and dead-sticked the plane in for a landing. The instructor on the ground reprimanded him for not bailing out. Dad retorted “Why would I jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” While that was ‘perfectly good’ common sense, it was not what the instructor wanted to hear. They sent Dad to gunnery school soon after. While he did copilot a B-25 overseas on one occasion, after the copilot of the plane he was on was injured, he never really piloted a plane again. But the desire to do so never left him. And even though I have never taken the controls of a plane myself, the spirit and knowledge he instilled in me has always left me feeling as if I could jump in and take off, if need be.
After all, it is just like riding a bike.
B-25 tail gunner video