Kalamazoo’s ‘Air Zoo’ Michigan USA…

Standing in the shower this morning listening to Chris Evans’ BBC Radio Two breakfast show I was fascinated to hear the studio take a call from a ‘weekend display’ pilot of a veteran aircraft, talking about the cockpit of a former de Havilland Vampire jet, (the second jet-fighter to enter RAF service, just missing out on WW-II), that he had sitting on his drive-way!

Bought ‘on impulse’ at an auction of a former independent aircraft museum up north that had ‘gone west’ and was subsequently having to sell off all its wonderful exhibits, including a number of original aircraft cockpits of varying hues & conditions, the chap had bought this particular decrepit cockpit, restored it and was now looking for a museum that would like to take it away from his driveway and have it on display for other enthusiasts to enjoy.

With my other ‘great historical love’ being Second World War vintage aircraft this radio exchange immediately called to mind a superbly displayed ‘front half’ of a twin-engined, USAAF B-26 Marauder bomber, (an aircraft that had operated with great distinction from UK airfields and flew in the skies above Germany during the Allied heavy bombing campaign of WW-II), that I saw at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington on one of my many US trips… and my mind then drifted further to another superb air museum that I was also very lucky to have seen on another of my exciting US jaunts:

Whilst over on another US Veterans’ gathering as a result of the treasured contacts I had made when travelling with the US 79th Infantry Division on their pilgrimage back to Normandy’s D-Day beaches in 2000, I was staying with my great mates up in the stunningly beautiful state of Michigan, when it was suggested that I might like to visit the Kalamazoo Zoo.. (and yes, Kalamzoo does actually exist – it’s not just a song..!)

Thanking my hosts (the Brantingham family), for their suggestion and imagining what strange North American wild-life might be housed within: Moose? the odd Raccoon? or perhaps even evidence of the original Big Foot?… I was soon put right!  We were indeed talking about an exotic collection… of ‘cats’…for the small, friendly American town of Kalamazoo is home to the Flight of Cats, a mind-boggling collection of Grumman fighter aircraft lovingly restored and displayed on the edge of the town’s small airport.

Opened in 1979 with nine aircraft, the Air Zoo was the brainchild of war-time ferry pilot Sue Parish and husband Pete. A former member of the American Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service, Sue’s own Curtiss P40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft, (after which our archival company Tomahawk Films is named), is on show complete with its ‘lipstick pink’ paint-work. The pink hue was originlly the ‘planes undercoat showing through its 1942 desert livery and today is one of the star attractions of this much loved fighter collection.

Excitingly, the whole of the illustrious Grumman fighter family is on display at the Zoo: from the famous US Navy carrier-borne fighters of the Pacific War, the Wildcat, the Hellcat and the Bearcat, through to the F7 twin-engined Tigercat that just caught the end of World War two, but which distinguished itself as a night-fighter in the Korean War, up to the modern day and the awe-inspiring and beautiful front-line carrier-borne F14 Tomcat, an example on loan from the US Navy’s ‘Fighting 84t.h’ Squadron.

Far more than just a collection of static aircraft, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, (much like our very own Imperial War Museum’s Airfield of Duxford, where our SFX CD Sounds of War, offering a number of original WW-II aero-engine sounds is on offer), is actually a living, breathing museum, with a daily display flight by one of their restored aircraft, a comprehensive reference library & education centre and a fully working aircraft restoration and renovation department.

With over 70 aircraft on display, museum guests will find a small, dedicated team of ‘Docents’ (tour guides), drawn from a collection of war-time pilots, including Canadian Bill Clearly who flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain with Tangmere-based 601 Squadron. Known as ‘Pranger’ due to several mishaps whilst with a ‘Mossie’ squadron, Bill was eventually credited with four kills in the Battle and ended his war flying Lysanders on spy-drop missions behind enemy lines in Northern France.

In fact the log-books of many of these formally-trained museum guides read like a plane-spotter’s dream; from ‘Black Widows’ to the amazing F82 ‘double-mustang’ from the B25 Mitchell bomber to the P39 Aircobra and all these animated, former fighter pilots are eager & willing to share their amazing war-time experiences with the visitors.

I must admit that in chatting to one of these, now elderly, gentlemen, I finally found out where the phrase ‘the whole 9 yards’ actually comes from: apparently early machine-gun belts in the wings of Allied fighter aircraft were 27 feet long and when returning pilots were greeted by the armourers, if the pilot had expended all of his ammunition, the ground-crew opening up the gun-ports would exclaim: ’well he certainly shot the whole 9 yards..!’

Many similar nuggets of information were forthcoming and such is the importance placed on learning that the Zoo has appointed an education director, Gerard ‘Jerry’ Pahl, who showed me their Restoration operation at the centre of which was an amazing project: the rebuild of one of the X-planes. In fact the XP-55 ‘Ascender’  which Jerry proudly pointed out is the last surviving example and, as an affiliate of the Washington Smithsonian Institute, the Air Zoo was tasked with its important renovation upon behalf of the American nation.

Maintaining another local connection is the on-going restoration project to restore a superb Douglas SBD Dauntless naval carrier-borne dive-bomber that was recovered from the bottom of the nearby Lake Michigan. During the war, local paddle steamers were pressed into military service and converted into training carriers upon which Dauntless naval aviators could practice the hazardous business of carrier landings & take-offs; however some 300 aircraft were lost into the lake during this training period and many still lie in the silt at the bottom to this day.

However a number of successful recoveries have since been made by aircraft recovery groups and the Air Zoo now has one of these rare aircraft in the main hall alongside its other exciting exhibits, which also includes a flying version of the Bell P39-Q Aircobra in the markings of the 67th US pursuit squadron… one of the world’s only 3 surviving airworthy examples of the 9,585 originally built.

World War Two aircraft buffs & students of US Naval carrier history passing through this lovely Great Lake State would be well rewarded with a stop-over at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo and its amazing collection of combat aircraft… I certainly was!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

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