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Nikki Statler, Director of Marketing
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It can be hard to quantify the positive impact a cultural institution has on its community without experiencing that impact firsthand. MSgt. Darrik Thompson, USAF, retired, is just such a person, and for him the Air Zoo and the positive impact it has had on his life hold a very special place in his heart. “The Delano family [co-founder Sue Parish’s family] introduced my grandparents,” he recounts succinctly, “and my grandfather introduced me to aviation through the Air Zoo, which led to a 20-year military career.”
A graduate of Portage Central High School, Darrik spent a lot of time with his grandfather when he and his sister were little. “He was born in 1905,” he shares, “so when I came along in 1976 he was already older. He looked for activities that he could do and keep up with me and my sister.” One of those activities was sitting in the backyard of his grandfather’s Milwood house and talking. That house was situated directly in the path of one of the runways of what is, today, the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. “Sitting in his backyard, having a conversation, you could watch the landing lights coming right at you and you’d have to pause and wait to finish your conversation because it was so loud,” he remembers.
Watching the aircraft sparked a passion in Darrik that his grandfather kindled when the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum opened its doors to the public in 1979. Popularly known as the Air Zoo, the museum was a source of inspiration. “I was just infatuated,” he recalls, sharing that one-hour visits on Saturdays or Sundays turned into multi-hour visits whenever the fledgling museum was open. He recalls sitting for hours reading in the Air Zoo’s DC-3 and just “imagining what it would be like to one day work on, sit in and fly these airplanes.”
The High on Kalamazoo Air Show took Darrik’s love of aircraft to another level. During the week of the air show, the moment he heard the rumble of an engine overhead, he was sprinting for the door. “The joke,” he says, “was that I could identify any aircraft coming over the house by the sound of the engine…and it’s true. I knew exactly what I was looking for in the sky the moment I heard it.”
Understanding his love, and to save a little cash on all their visits, his grandfather bought a membership to the Air Zoo, “just for me because there was no one else who was so interested in the museum.” With that membership, Darrik spent hours looking at aircraft, models, and drawings. When his grandfather passed away, his parents ensured that he still had access to the museum. He spent countless hours there, biking on his 10-speed from Austin Lake as often as he could.
“When the air show moved to June,” he recalls, “that was hard for me because it was at the end of the school year. I’d spend time I should be working staring out the school window hoping to catch a glimpse of something.” His teachers understood his love of aircraft and tried to use it to inspire him in school. “One of my teachers used to pose quiz questions to me,” he recalls, “and asked me one day who Igor Sikorsky was. I had no idea, but I had the Air Zoo. I used my membership to check out books from the museum library and find out the answers to all her questions.”
In 1997 Darrik fulfilled a lifelong dream, inspired by his time at the Air Zoo, and enlisted in the Air Force. “My eyesight wasn’t very good,” he notes, “and wasn’t a very strong student so I didn’t become a pilot, but I went after my next love.” He was first assigned to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas where he began his career as an aircraft structural mechanic by working on KC-135s, which “are some of the oldest airplanes around with the newest one rolling of the assembly line in 1964 and really connected what I grew up dreaming about at the museum to what I was doing.”
He was later transferred to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia where he eventually worked on the F-22 Raptor. “During my career moving to the Raptor ended up being a super highlight for me,” he says, “though I was pushed into working on it moving over from the F-15. People are surprised to hear that at first I really wasn’t all that excited to work on the Raptor when in reality it’s what the Air Force needed from me. And in the long run it opened up more opportunities like being put in charge of security oversight for the first two Raptor deployments to Europe in 2015 and 2016.”
With much of his family still in southwestern Michigan, Darrik has maintained his connection with the Air Zoo and was even able to share his love of aircraft with students at the museum. While still on active duty, in 2016 he came and spoke to a group of WMU students – including his nephew– who were visiting to work on the active restoration of an SBD-2P Dauntless dive bomber, giving back to place that offered him so much inspiration and helping inspire the next generation of aviation enthusiasts.
Today, a father of five who lives in Pensacola, Florida, Darrik has retired from the military and is Air Force Civil Service assigned to the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base where he works security for testing of some of the Air Forces newest equipment. “The museum is the reason that I am into what I’m into today,” he emphasizes. “I’m a complete airplane nerd and it fed me from top to bottom for years,” he says. “Today, I tell everyone I can about it and whenever I’m in town I drag my family there.”