Friday, September 27, 2013

"Someone Told Me It's All Happening at the Zoo"

Visits to Kalamazoo, MI usually involve three imperatives: visits with old friends, dining at favorite restaurants, and a trip to the Air Zoo. There was a time when we routinely drove past our old house, but that became depressing when it was clearly not being well maintained.

Since my last trip to the Air Zoo, East Campus (which was the original Air Zoo facility) re-opened as a combined restoration center and aircraft display area. I was looking forward to being back in the original building and seeing some of the aircraft that have been out of public view for years. On top of this, there were some new artifacts and some surprises as well.

Of the smattering of aircraft that used to sit on the lawn outside the Air Zoo, only the Martin B-57 Canberra remains, seen here with the new Kalamazoo tower in the background.

This is the Pratt & Whitney J58 engine that pushed the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird to three times the speed of sound. This engine ran continuously in afterburner mode and operated as a ramjet at high speeds. I assume that the block of wood is used to keep museum visitors from losing fingers to freely-turning compressor vanes.

Nearby is another impressive Pratt & Whitney product: the R-4360 Wasp Major.  This supercharged 28 cylinder behemoth propelled the last generation of large piston-driven aircraft such as the Boeing Stratofortress. It developed between 2600 and 3800 horsepower, depending on the variant.

The Air Zoo's F-104 Starfighter, a Mach 2 interceptor with such a thin wing that the sharp leading edges could actually injure ground crew. During its time in operation, it was referred to as "the missile with a man in it" for obvious reasons.  For many years, this airplane was in the Air Zoo's restoration facility and could only be seen by special tour.

This was a pleasant surprise. The fuselage of this painstakingly accurate Sopwith Camel replica stood in the lobby of the Air Zoo for many years while glacial progress was made on the wings. If I recall correctly, the project was started by a Detroit area man who obtained detailed plans for the Camel and set about building it in his garage before the project transferred to the Air Zoo.

The Air Zoo has taken possession of a FM-2 Wildcat recently recovered from the the bottom of Lake Michigan.

The aircraft was remarkably intact, though understandably filthy.

There was even still air in the tires. Grumman designed their airplanes to last.

The Wildcat was lost during carrier qualification exercises on Lake Michigan. When the aircraft went into the water, the carrier struck the empennage, shearing it off (the tail section was also recovered and is sitting next to the airplane on the floor). The wings were removed for transporting the wreckage, thus explaining the wing-shaped clean spots on the side of the fuselage.

Impotent machine gun ports in the leading edges of the Wildcat wing.

Back at Main Campus, I visited with the world's only surviving Curtiss XP-55 Ascender. This aircraft arrived in pieces early during my tenure at the Air Zoo and restoration was completed just prior to my departure.

A Vought F-8 Crusader with a unique wing capable of variable angle of incidence.

My old friend, the P-47 Thunderbolt.

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was not one of the most successful aircraft of WWII, but it was always interesting to talk about.

The museum's CG-4A cargo glider was restored to resemble The Fighting Falcon "presented by Greenville Schools." The students in Greenville (northeast of Grand Rapids) raised enough money through war bonds to buy three gliders. In recognition of that accomplishment, The Fighting Falcon was slated to be the first CG-4A to land at Normandy on D-Day.

The CG-4A would have been towed by this aeronautical workhorse, a militarized Douglas DC-3 rebranded as the C-47 Skytrain. As of the early 2000's, there were still an estimated 100 DC-3/C-47 aircraft still employed as working airplanes around the world.

The Air Zoo's faux-Blue Angel, a T-28 in which I once flew over a decade ago.

An airworthy FM-2 Wildcat. Though it is unlikely that the Air Zoo will restore the Wildcat recovered from Lake Michigan to airworthy condition, it should look like this one when completed.

Some people think that the Grumman F6F Hellcat is a brutish looking thing. But just look at that smile! How could anyone find it brutish? Regardless of appearances, it was undeniably one of the best single engine Naval fighters of the war with a victory to loss ratio of 19:1. When I was in training to be a docent, I researched the Hellcat extensively. Not many of these airplanes survived into the 21st century - this airworthy example is a rare gem.

And, of course, the Corsair - one of the most distinctly recognizable WWII fighters built. If I am not mistaken, it was the first single engine piston aircraft to exceed 400 mph. This example is an FG-1D built under contract by Goodyear with a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine built by Nash Kelvinator; a prime example of how the United States flexed not only its manufacturing might, but also its manufacturing flexibility (skilled tradesman from other industries applying their skills to building aircraft), during WWII.

The museum's Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber shares a lot in common with the Air Zoo's newest acquisition - it also spent decades submerged in Lake Michigan. The museum did a fantastic job restoring this aircraft. As I understand it, the strength of this restoration was a significant factor in earning the Air Zoo its Smithsonian affiliate status, which in turn brought in the XP-55 project.

The Douglas AD-1 Skyraider. I have pictures of my wife sitting in this beefy single engine aircraft with a huge grin on her face. The huge powerplant on this thing produced so much P-factor (left turning tendency) that the vertical stabilizer is visibly twisted to compensate.

No set of Air Zoo photographs is complete without a picture of the F-14 Tomcat. I once gave a tour to the family of Bob Hall, famous WWII-era Grumman aircraft designer and test pilot. After my spiel on the F-14, one of his sons said to me, "that was very well done." Evidently, he followed in his father's footsteps and proceeded to show me the parts of the Tomcat that he had personally designed when he worked for Grumman. Sometimes, you just never know who is on your tour.

The Air Zoo's elegant Grumman Mallard seaplane is a centerpiece added to the museum since my departure.

I liked this little cluster of golden age aircraft with a faithfully-reproduced Travel Air Mystery Ship replica front and center.

I ended my visit staring down the world's fastest, highest-flying, air-breathing, manned aircraft, the magnificent Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. This particular blackbird, the world's only remaining "B" model trainer with a second cockpit, is said to be the most photographed Blackbird of them all.

After so much time in years past spent taking visitors through the museum and telling the stories of these aircraft and the people who flew them, visiting with them again is like seeing old friends. I've missed them.

I think the museum can be best summarized by a comment I overheard from a woman standing on the Main Campus balcony while I was photographing the Blackbird: "This is IMPRESSIVE!"

And it is.  If you've never been, you should go. And, for pilots, the museum is once again accepting fly-in visitors on its ramp located off of taxiway B-3 at the Kalamazoo / Battle Creek International Airport. General admission is $10.


  1. Love the story about the Tomcat tour. Love the Air Zoo as well. I think we might have to make another visit when we're up there again in a couple weeks - don't think we've been inside since 2010 or 2011. Wonderful photos, Chris!

    1. Thanks, Steve. If you go on a Saturday, be sure to ask for either of my good friends Dar or John Ceglarek for a tour - they're both veteran docents who really know their stuff and give great tours (though their styles are actually very different).