The Air Zoo's founding organization, the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum, has built a reputation of national renown. Founded in 1977, it opened to the public on November 18, 1979.
But the Air Zoo had its beginnings much earlier. In the late 1940s, it seemed that Pete and Suzanne Parish (co-founders of the Air Zoo) were content to leave airplanes behind. Fresh from a stint in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Sue met and married Pete, a former Marine Air Corps. In 1959, Pete came home one evening and announced he had purchased half an interest in a plane. It was a single-engine 35C Bonanza, and his partner was the chief pilot for The Upjohn Company.
Before long, they purchased a Stearman. Next came an AT-6 like Sue had flown as a WASP. Then came a Grumman Wildcat. When word traveled through the grapevine about a partially assembled P-40 in Addison, Texas, Sue couldn't resist. It was the combat plane she had always dreamed of flying as a WASP.
It was becoming clear that Sue and Pete wanted to share their enthusiasm about World War II airplanes with people who enjoyed these historic flying machines. Then a friend made them an offer they couldn't refuse: start a museum, and he would give them his Grumman Bearcat. The museum at 3101 East Milham Road became popularly known as the Air Zoo because the collection included a Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat and Flying Tiger.
The initial collection was comprised of seven aircraft and a limited number of artifacts. Three years after opening its doors, the museum had developed a relationship with the Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans Association, and in 1982, it was selected as the home for the Association's artifacts.
The museum began expanding its facility in 1986, tripling its size to 45,000 square feet. Completed in 1987, the expanded museum housed a larger exhibit hall, a video theater, a new museum store and a larger library. At this time, the museum also hired a full-time education director to develop innovative educational programs to fit a variety of needs, including the Michigan Model Curriculum objectives.
In 1994, the museum expanded again by moving its existing Flight and Restoration Center to a newer and larger building. The museum was then chosen as the home of the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. A remodeling project was undertaken in 1995 to increase space for small and rotating exhibits, new offices for the museum's staff, a new library, research facility and an interactive simulator exhibit.
In 2002, several additional milestones were achieved. The culmination of a yearlong process resulted in the museum becoming an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. This prestigious designation is only conferred upon a few museums in the country and was achieved after a rigorous review process. Also that year, the museum became certified by the State of Michigan to teach aviation courses for local high school students as well as students at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
On May 1, 2004, the Air Zoo opened a new facility unlike any other in the world. The 120,000-square-foot facility is what some call the "museum of the future." With 360-degree, full-motion flight simulators, the Midwest's first 4D theater, indoor amusement park rides, a 3D space shuttle ride to the International Space Station, continuous traveling exhibits (including many from the Smithsonian Institution) and a 28,800-square-foot hand-painted indoor mural, the Air Zoo combines a sense of adventure with a sense of history.
In June 2007, the Air Zoo added the Michigan Space Science Center (MSSC) to its facility at its East Campus. The MSSC allows visitors to experience some of the challenges astronauts go through during their training. The MSSC ranks fourth in the nation for the number of Smithsonian Institution/National Air and Space Museum artifacts on display.
2011 was a year of new rides, new exhibits and new fun at the Air Zoo. On January 1, 2011 the Air Zoo closed its East Campus in preparation of its new Main Campus expansion (see next paragraph). Early in the year, the Air Zoo opened an 18-hole disc golf course, designed by professional disc golfer Larry LaBond. The par three course is the first and only disc golf course in Portage. In June, the Air Zoo added a number of new rides, including the indoor Century of Flight Ferris Wheel, the Paratrooper Jump and the Corsair Challenge, in its Main Campus. The museum also debuted an upgraded RealD 3D/4D Missions Theater with a new movie.
On October 1, 2011, the Air Zoo expanded yet again by opening a 50,000-square-foot addition on its Main Campus. The expansion features new and current exhibits, aircraft and space artifacts. It houses Space: Dare to Dream, an interactive exhibit that celebrates the dreamers who dared to find answers to our existence, along with the history of space exploration. It also contains the MSSC, an exhibit about women in aviation and space (including the WASP) and World War II aircraft that were originally housed at the Air Zoo's East Campus. The addition features a 4,000-square-foot archive and an expanded library as well.