In Kalamazoo, Michigan is a zoo that is unlike any other. There are no animals but there are plenty of rides and a lot of attractions. It is the Air Zoo where one can see and experience the history of flight.
Fred, his parents, and I went to the Air Zoo on our second day in Michigan. While I was growing up, Dad took the family to several air museums. As a kid, I found them rather boring. I wanted to zip around the exhibits as quickly as possible and get back in the car. However, as only grownups can seem to do, my parents wanted to take their time and read each description of the planes. But the brochure of the Air Zoo showed more than just planes; it also had rides.
The first ride Fred and I hopped on was a “hot air balloon” ride. It was mechanical and it spun in circles while swooping up and down. I really enjoyed it but the circling caused Fred to be nauseous. We then joined with his parents for a 4-D battle flight experience. The seats moved and air blew in our faces at intervals, not only giving the audience the sensation of wind but also the smell of plane exhaust. While I liked how they incorporated smell, I was a bit disappointed at the rest of it. I thought that the seats would move constantly, dipping us back and to the sides. But the chairs only moved back and only a couple of times. I left the “ride” wanting more.
The next ride was a flight simulator. Basically it was an elaborate computer game that two people could play. The participants were strapped into their seats, each with controls at their side. One was the pilot and the other was a gunner. Then a lid came down over them, completely trapping them in a tiny box. The game screen was projected in front of them and they had complete control of what happened while they were in there.
As I stood in line with Fred, I saw most of the boxes doing barrel rolls and hanging either straight up or straight down. I quickly lost my nerve. I figured that Fred, who loves rollercoasters, wouldn’t let me, Ms. Chicken Shit, get away without doing at least one barrel roll. It wasn’t that I was just afraid of the ride, either. I was afraid of throwing up and I hate the thought of throwing just as much as the act itself. So I stepped out of line and let Fred’s dad, who was also a thrill seeker, ride with him.
As they climbed aboard, I yelled out, “You can always ditch in the ocean!” Fred’s mom and I watched the monitor that showed us what they were seeing inside the ride. Less than a minute into their flight, the plane headed straight for the water. “I was only joking,” I thought but maybe they were just having fun. Then, suddenly, the whole contraption flipped around and their simulator was facing the opposite direction it had started in. It was then that I felt right in my decision not to go on the ride.
Next to the flight simulator was an exhibit called “The Fly Girls of WWII” which featured the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Each woman was listed with a picture and brief biography. Original uniforms were displayed on mannequins. There was also a short history on the WASP mascot, Fifi, which was drawn by Disney animators and based on a Roald Dahl character.
We then looked at the long and sleek Lockheed SR-71B Blackbird. (Yeah, I didn’t know what it was at first, either.) This plane was built by NASA to spy (on what, I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with America’s enemies). It was painted completely black and the aerodynamics of it were stunning. It could reach a speed of Mach 3! It was quite a sight to behold.
Next to the spy plane was another ride, this time a trip on a shuttle to the space station. It was another mild ride, but definitely more exciting than the 4-D ride. That was the end of the first building so we took a break and had a snack from the Kitty Hawk Cafe. We skipped the gift store (“Fly Buy Store”) entirely and headed for the East Campus. Here visitors could pay for a plane ride where they took hold of the control themselves. Even if it had been free, I wouldn’t have done it! We stuck to the exhibits, which were all about space, instead.
A tiny capsule caught my attention right away. It was just big enough to hold a toddler. Right below the one window were three handles, each a different color. Curious, I read about the odd contraption. It turned out to be what the monkeys trained in to prepare for flight in space. The handles were part of a series of tests. If the monkey did well, he got a banana pellet. If he did poorly, then there was no pellet. To help kids understand (or perhaps just to keep them entertained) there was a video version of the tests to play. I started out doing fine but…well, let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m not a monkey in the space program.
Despite having watched Apollo 13 (one of my all-time favorite movies) right before heading out on our trip, I still couldn’t comprehend the size of the shuttle. Well, the Air Zoo helped put it in perspective for me. There was one burner set up so that one could walk underneath it. It was bigger than I’d imagined from watching movies, and to think that the shuttles had four of those on it blew my mind!
Fred and I tried our hand at docking a station. The first time around, I was in control of the direction while he was in control of the speed. I veered off to the right and then over-corrected the mistake. It was more difficult than it looked so I made Fred switch places with me to see if he could do any better. He wasn’t able to dock on the first try either, although he was a lot closer than I was.
We then walked through a recreated shuttle that depicted how everyday tasks were handled in space. I learned that astronauts have to wear a snorkeling mask when showering so the water doesn’t go up their noses. Then they have to vacuum off the water from the walls and their skin. It was also interesting to see their sleeping quarters and bathrooms. Everything looked a lot more complicated and in such a tinier area!
We were forced to bypass the Zero Gravity ride because it had a maximum waist requirement of 38 inches. That was one of the rides I’d been looking forward to so I was quite disappointed when I learned I couldn’t go on it. Fred wanted to go on the Space Ball, a contraption that rolls two people around and around. I didn’t want to go (again, I didn’t want to throw up) and this time I was happy to see a maximum weight capacity that forced me to sit out. Instead, Fred went on the ride with someone else who wanted to go and didn’t have a partner. I watched as Fred was spun around in every which direction. He looked like he was having fun but the ride left his nauseated. The rest of us were ready to go anyway, as we had a long car ride still ahead of us.
Aside from Fred’s nausea, the four of us left Michigan in good spirits. It’d been a fun weekend. I can’t wait to go back some time and experience more…with my feet firmly on the ground, of course!