Bringing Historic Aircraft to Life for a New Museum

large group of people posed together in front of the Air Zoo museum
A new partnership between the National Naval Aviation Museum, National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation and the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Center brings historic aircraft to life for new museum.
Through the efforts of the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) in Pensacola, Florida, and the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a WWII FM-2 Wildcat will be beautifully restored by the Air Zoo’s nationally recognized restoration team and provided on long-term loan to the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation (NMOHMF), scheduled to open in Arlington, Texas, in the fall of 2024, for permanent display in its galleries.
This special project began 10 years ago when an FM-2 Wildcat fighter plane was recovered from its 68-year slumber on the bottom of Lake Michigan. This Navy fighter plane, restored to a 1942 condition, will be a centerpiece in the new museum’s Above & Beyond: Naval and Aviation Gallery. Conversations between the organizations began in late 2021, and with today’s announcement, the Air Zoo Restoration Team anticipates a spring 2024 completion.
Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad, USN (Ret), Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, President & CEO, said: “Having this WWII-vintage Wildcat on display in the National Medal of Honor Museum is vital for the American public. Not only does this aircraft help inform about the heritage and contributions of Naval Aviation on a strategic level – it also helps tell more specific stories of incredible heroism, with numerous Medal of Honor recipients flying this type of aircraft during the WWII campaign. Our collective ability to tell these stories wouldn’t be possible without the amazing artisanship of the Wildcat restoration team at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo and the committed partnership of National Medal of Honor Museum.”
Chris Cassidy, NMHOMF President and CEO, said: “The National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation is honored to be the future home of this remarkable fighter plane. Thanks to our partnership with the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and the Air Zoo, millions of Americans will be inspired by the stories of the Medal of Honor recipients who flew this type of plane during some of the most challenging moments of World War II.”
Eight different WWII pilots earned the Medal of Honor while flying the Wildcat. No other single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft has more Medal of Honor actions associated with it than the Wildcat fighter. The courage and sacrifice embodied within Medal of Honor pilots Henry Elrod, Butch O’Hare, Joe Bauer, Jefferson DeBlanc, Joe Foss, Bob Galer, John Smith, and James Swett will be further highlighted by having a version of their airplane on display within the National Medal of Honor Museum’s gallery.  
The FM-2 Wildcat, Bureau Number 57039, has a remarkable story unto itself. This Wildcat was used in training Naval aviators in the Great Lakes region. During a training flight, piloted by Ensign William E. Forbes on December 18, 1944, this Wildcat skidded from the deck of the USS Sable and was cut in two as the fuselage was struck by one of the ship’s paddle wheels. It then sank 200 feet to the bottom of Lake Michigan, where it rested until retrieved on December 7, 2012, by A and T Recovery on behalf of the National Museum of Naval Aviation and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. The aircraft was relocated to the restoration facilities at the Air Zoo – one of the preeminent aircraft restoration facilities in the country, on August 5, 2013.  
Troy Thrash, President and CEO of the Air Zoo, said: “Through the dedication and immeasurable skill of our aircraft restoration team, life is being restored to this amazing Wildcat and the stories of eight heroic Medal of Honor recipients will be told in a unique and immersive way for generations to come. Our team is grateful to play such an important part in this project, and we are honored to be part of this exciting time for the National Medal of Honor Museum.”
The Air Zoo’s Restoration Department is unique in that the program is found on the exhibit floor at the Flight Discovery Center located at 3101 E. Milham Rd. in Portage, Michigan. During the restoration, the public can stop by and see the work being done on this historic plane.  
Once the aircraft is fully restored in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Wildcat will be transported to the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas, where it will be placed on permanent display. The National Medal of Honor Museum is slated to open its doors to the public in late 2024. 
To learn more about this Wildcat restoration project please visit or follow the Air Zoo’s Restoration Group page on Facebook.