Amy Eckert, contributing writer for Michigan Travel Ideas, heads to Portage to check out the newly expanded Air Zoo. With airplanes called “Wildcat,” “Hellcat” and “Flying Tiger,” she discovers where the aviation museum got the “zoo” in its name.
With the addition of the East Wing, the new and improved Air Zoo now features more than 50 rare and historic aircraft; the Midwest’s first 4-D theatre; eight flight-themed amusement park-style and flight simulator rides; 170,000 square feet of exhibit space (a 120,000-square-foot Main Campus building and the new 50,000-square-foot East Wing addition); an expanded exhibit about women in space and aviation, including some interesting WASP displays; and a 28,800-square-foot mural titled “Century of Flight” tracing aviation history from hot air balloons to space travel.
The main exhibition floor can be a bit overwhelming. For first-time visitors, I recommend asking a docent or volunteer, some are WWII veterans for a tour. These guides wear nametags and hang out near the front next to a sign that reads, “Free tours.” Seeing the old planes and reading the placards are interesting enough, but taking advantage of these tours really elevates the experience to a whole new level. The main exhibition includes four distinct areas: Beginnings (some of the world’s earliest airplanes), Missions (World War I and II planes), Sentinels at Sea (aircraft that are designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers) and Journeys Beyond (a reconnaissance plane).
In the back of the main exhibit hall you’ll find the entrance to the East Wing of the Air Zoo which begins with the new exhibit “Space: Dare to Dream.” Some of the displays are a bit text-heavy like the inspiring quotes from people like Isaac Newton, TS Eliot, William Jennings Bryan and even Walt Disney (obviously, some were more dreamers than scientists or aviators).
Other “Dare to Dream” displays are more interactive, including those that trace the origins of heavenly exploration with a Mayan astronomical calendar, Galileo’s observations of the night sky and the Apollo space program. There’s a cool prototype lunar rover, a replica command module (the pod that astronauts used to plummet back to Earth and into the ocean at the end of their space voyage), a replica space shuttle and some interactive reproductions of astronaut training equipment.
Beyond the space section is another large room filled with WWII-era aircraft. I’m told that many of these aircraft are quite rare: Hellcats, Bearcats, Wildcats and Flying Tigers. These planes have been beautifully and lovingly restored and many are just beautifully designed, like the Corsair with the red-and-white checkerboard nose, the boxy, olive-drab WWII glider and the Skyraider with its fold-up wings.
The month of February is Open Cockpit Month, when visitors can jump into the pilot’s seat in three of the museum’s planes (including the Skyraider). The experience is included in the purchase of general admission—$8. For more information, visit www.airzoo.org.
Amy Eckert is a freelance travel writer who lives in Holland. Publications she has contributed to include Michigan Travel Ideas, Sky West Magazine and both Frommer’s and Michelin guidebooks.