Get your hands on the controls of the Air Zoo’s World War II fighters

“Look but don’t touch” is usually the mantra of museums – but not at the Air Zoo.

During the month of February, visitors to the aviation museum in Kalamazoo, Mich., will be able to experience a different view of aircraft…from the cockpit.

Each weekend during the month of February, three cockpits will be open to the public, including World War II primary trainers (PT-22, PT-23 and Stearman) and World War II fighters (P-47, P-39 and Hispano Buchon). During the first and third weekends, local Navy sailors will be on hand to assist visitors. Air Zoo volunteers will be available during all weekends to answer any questions about the aircraft and their history.

“Museums seldom allow people to actually touch artifacts, but during February, we are providing visitors with a rare opportunity to have an up close and personal experience with history,” says Bob Ellis, executive director.

Open Feb. 7-8 and 14-15 will be the trainers: PT-22, PT-23 and Stearman.

The Ryan PT-22 Recruit was built by the Ryan Aeronautical Co., one of the major firms selected by the U.S. government to build military trainers. The Recruit was similar to many two-place trainers used by the military in World War II. Some of the planes were sent to China and the Netherlands East Indies, as well as to South American countries. The Army Air Force had 60 in Asia, but as far as it is known, they were all destroyed by the Japanese.

The Fairchild (Howard-built) PT-23 Cornell (and its in-line engine brother the PT-19) was an excellent low-wing monoplane trainer with widely spaced landing gear. A special feature of this plane is the steerable tail wheel. Prior to June 1942, all U.S. Army PTs sported the blue and yellow color scheme, characteristic of many of its trainers. There would have been red and white bars with blue vertical stripes on the rudder.

The Boeing/Stearman N2S-5 (PT-13 D) Kaydet taught more World War II cadets to fly than any other aircraft, although the museum’s was used for anti-submarine patrol. The Kaydet was considered ideal for teaching basic flying maneuvers, aerobatics and takeoffs. Landing, however, presented a challenge because of restricted forward visibility, lateral instability during rollouts and rough touchdowns. Like the N3N, it was often referred to as the “Yellow Peril” because of these landing difficulties.

The fighters, P-47, P-39 and Hispano Buchon, will be open Feb. 21-22 and Feb. 28-March 1.

The Republic P-47D Thunderbolt was one of the best and most durable fighters of World War II. Initially it escorted bombers deep into enemy territory. After the P-51 Mustang became available, the P-47 also did a remarkably good job in ground attack. With its eight .50 caliber machine guns and the ability to carry bombs and rockets, it became a “tank buster” as well as a “train buster.”

Armament of 37mm cannon in its nose and a varying complement of .50 and .30 caliber machine guns made the Bell P-39 Airacobra an excellent ground attack weapon. It was used extensively in the South Pacific and on the Russian front. More than 60% of all P-39s produced were sent to the Soviet Union as part of a Lend-Lease arrangement. The Russian pilots were essentially self-taught, because the Communist government did not trust Westerners to see their defenses.

The Hispano HA-1112 Buchon – the Spanish-built variant of the famous German Messerschmitt BF-109 – served in the Spanish Air Force well into the late 1960s. The museum’s Buchon was used in the movie “Battle of Britain” before being donated to the Air Zoo in 1977.

Due to the varying engineering and design elements, a weight restriction of 200 pounds is placed on individual aircraft. Visitors must also have the ability to enter and leave the aircraft unassisted and children wishing to enter the aircraft must be assisted by their parents/guardians.

For more information: 269-382-6555 or


  1. says

    I recently visited the Air Zoo and the extended exhibit which is near to the main building. It’s an excellent place to walk around and read about the many aircraft, and don’t forget to hop into one of the fully-functional jet fighter simulators. Barrel rolls, loops — you name it — you feel it all. The 360 degree, 25000 square foot mural is enough to make the visit worthwhile. It’s not as large or as complete as, say, the air and space museum in Washington, D.C., but it is loaded with character and helpful, informative and pleasant personnel. If Larry, an “old timer” vet is there, you’ll love it. He’s wonderful!

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