Call of Leadership

The Call of Leadership

Imagine my surprise to discover that Michigan has an Aerospace Museum.  And it is awesome!  Troy Thrash and his staff worked incredibly hard to elevate this museum into a family experience.  It piques curiosity and tickles the imagination.  Located over by Kalamazoo, this museum is definitely worth the trek.

Airzoo Aerospace and Science Experience Website

Airzoo Aerospace and Science Experience Facebook


Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:00]  hello everyone. And welcome to the show. This is Cliff DuVernois. Today. We’re doing a very special episode. This. This interview here really is an amalgamation of all of my childhood dreams. In one place. I am sitting with Troy thrash. He is the president and CEO of the air, zoo, aerospace and science experience.

Troy, how are you?

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:00:56] First of all. Let me say thank you for having me. I am having an amazing day at the air zoo. Like I have pretty much every day for the last seven years, living out my own childhood dreams as well. So really it is wonderful to get to talk to you. And certainly I believe we are pretty much kindred spirits in terms of our backgrounds and our passions.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:01:17] I agree with that assessment. 

This incredible. Just, wow. I I’m, I am absolutely awestruck here, with, with what you’re doing. I, I completely was not expecting this, so, but what I want to do is I want to kind of take a step back for a second and let’s talk a little bit about your background. Where did you, where are you from? Where did you grow up?

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:01:36] I’m originally from Eastern Pennsylvania. I grew up in the Allentown area, the, the Lehigh Valley, and I went to all the way through high school there. And, and from there branched out all over the place. So when I think about. Where I’m from, especially as it pertains to what I do now, it really, I can go back to when I was seven years old and my parents bought me my first telescope.

And I went out in my dark Eastern Pennsylvania skies with my trusty golden retriever biscuit. And was really that’s where. I’m from, but that’s where my passion is from because the first time I looked through that telescope and I saw the moon, not as a two dimensional disc of gray and white that I thought it was before.

But seeing that it is a three-dimensional sphere of mountains and. Valleys and craters, and it certainly helped to answer some wonderful questions for me. But for every question it answered, it gave me a hundred more that I had to look up. I had to research. I had to understand. And similarly, when I. First turned the telescope to Jupiter and saw the four white dots around it.

And I knew that they were the four primary satellites moons of Jupiter, but a few days later they were still there, but they moved and I really needed to understand how they moved, why they moved that way. And again, really sparking. My curiosity. And it was, it was during that time, I had no idea that I would one day end up being here at the air zoo, but it was, it was really that kind of aha moment that taught me that.

It was okay to ask questions. In fact, it was even better to seek out answers because it was going to give me more questions and it really led me along the path to the scientific process was which I enjoy doing every day.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:42] Yeah. And speaking of the scientific process, you. Actually, this is inspired even into your, like, starting with your college career. Tell us a little bit about, the degree that you got and where that wound up taking you.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:03:54] Well, if you, if you don’t mind, I may even take a step back as the, as the bridge into my, my

Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:58] certainly please do

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:03:59] when I was in junior high. So as this passion for astronomy and all things space began to grow. I had a teacher, mr. John Terry, in fact who in junior high, who recognized my passion for space and a friend of mine as well, who had a similar passion.

And he gave us the keys to the planetarium and the junior high and said and said, I want you to spend as much time in here as you want, learn the controls, create programs and deliver them to the public. And we did. And maybe it’s because we were young and we didn’t know any better that we were like, we got this.

And we did. And it was so empowering in senior high school, we were given the keys to an observatory to fix up a telescope and to present, really have public observing nights for the public. And it was so magical for us to be able to. Take that passion that we had and suddenly magnify it 10 times a hundred times by projecting that passion, having others start to feel the love of finding a, a binary star through the telescope and having people look at it and say, I’ve never seen this before.

How does that actually happen? How do they go around each other? And suddenly it’s like taking me back to my seven-year-old self. Like, yes, whatever. What if I can live a life of inspiring. Other people to ask those questions and seek out answers. And so my, obvious next step was, going to Villanova university, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and to where I received a degree in astronomy and astrophysics.

And, you know, at, at that point I thought I really want to be an astronomer. And I was so fortunate right out of college then to go and work on NASA is Hubble space telescope. And it was, it was a really interesting time because I had gotten there shortly after it was launched and discovered that it needed glasses.

And so I was, I w had gotten there after it launched, but before that, that first servicing mission, so there, I was just out of college, you know, being able to talk to people about what it’s like to work for NASA. And I was on the science planning and scheduling team. So I worked with astronomers all around the world.

To help them schedule their observations on the telescope. My group would work on week-long schedules, where we would, have to, first of all, it’s it’s like building the biggest, coolest puzzle. Ever, because we had to make sure as we’re putting some of these observations in place, Oh, this group wanted to look at an eclipsing binary stars, something.

so, so they had specific times that they needed to look at it. And so we would look at those and say, okay, Do those meet certain requirements? Like, is it still going to be based on where the telescope is at that moment? Which, Oh, by the way, moves at a 17,500 miles per hour around the earth orbiting once every 90 minutes.

But we had to make sure that it wasn’t going to be looking too close to the sun or the moon or the limb of the earth. And so, so just this giant puzzle to, to put in place. So, the magic of making astronomy happen and then being the first group to see. Those observations come down and real time from the telescope.

just nothing more inspiring and more powerful.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:07:28] Yes. And I distinctly remember that I was in college at the time when the mission to fix the Hubble telescope, giving glasses to use your teaser terminology, was broadcast on TV. And I watched as much as I could before I went to class. And then seeing the after images of that was Whoa. Really impressive.

It’s just beautiful. And it lit up the, it lit up the universe in a way that I just, I just think it’s borderline magical.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:07:54] so true. And, and, connecting past to present, I, we had the opportunity to meet the seven astronauts who were, were going up to service the telescope before and after and had some conversations with them. And it was just a few years ago that, one of the astronauts that really stood out to me in conversation was a gentleman named story Musgrave.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:16] Oh, I remember

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:08:17] Oh, you

Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:18] I do. I

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:08:19] Well, I, a couple of years ago had gotten word while I was sitting in my office. That story Musgrave was standing inside the air zoo and walking around and, and I went downstairs and I saw that same story Musgrave and introduce myself knowing he wouldn’t remember me from my, my humble days, but what a fantastic experience to be able to give him a behind the scenes.

Tour of the air zoo and talk about how I was inspired by the work that he did, which ultimately led me here.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:52] Right. And just for our audience to give you a little bit of background on the gentleman that we’re talking about, he was, I dare, almost say a legend in the astronaut Corps, as far as the number of space shuttle missions that he was, he was commanding. I mean, he seemed to be like the go-to guy and the most difficult missions were the ones that fell under her, his purview.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:09:14] He did indeed. And, and as wonderful as he was as an astronaut, he was also the guy that I remember was the last person in the room, talking to people, signing autographs, making sure that he got all of their questions answered.

So, so as, as a, as a person, someone passionate about the work that he does and wanting to, to pass that passion on in my mind, he was legendary at that as well.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:09:37] So, yeah, we’re kindred spirits.

I think we’ve, I think we’ve proven that now. That’s great. So what I would like to do now is I would like to talk about how with your, with your, with your degree, with your job at NASA, how did you segue into like the non-profit world? Cause you actually were in charge of another museum in pencil.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:09:55] was, I was, yeah, it was, it was during the time at NASA that w w loved doing what I was doing and, and would, would reach out to schools and community groups and, and say, Hey, can I come and speak? Would you like to hear,  about the, the, the wonders of the universe through Hubble’s eyes? 

I think those were experiences that really. Drove me to do what I’m doing more than anything else. When I would go out to community groups and adults and talk to them about how important it is to re, to really push the envelope of, of science and technology research and how it’s around us every day. And talking about the Hubble, I got the same question and usually in a different form every single time, which was, why did we just waste $2 billion on this orbiting piece of junk?

When we could have spent $2 billion feeding the hungry or clothing, the homeless, and, you know, as a, as a, as a kid out of college being very passionate about this, I knew the answer. I knew how important this was not only to our present, but to our future, but I couldn’t get it out. I struggled to be able to, to relate it properly, but I knew I had to figure out how.

And I would go to schools and talk to kids and, you know, my upbringing, I had all of these opportunities, but I realized that so many kids had never even seen or looked through a telescope. So many kids didn’t have that aha moment that I had to say, I want to do this forever. And so it was really at that point, I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I made it my mission to really expand.

A community’s knowledge of science and technology through immersive ways to give everyone we can that aha moment to understand why science and technology matter to our lives. And ultimately that, that led me to, eventually becoming the executive director of a group called the national aerospace development center, which is down in Atlanta, Georgia.

And they are a nonprofit organization. w the time I was there, we had a very large grant from the U S department of labor to work in regions around the country, helping them build up their technical workforce. Around aviation in space. So, so we worked with large employers like Boeing and Lockheed and, and others, helping them build partnerships with educators, with workforce development groups, with governments, with military to ultimately build a comprehensive workforce development pipeline that, would allow them, to, do this around the regional level to say, We are building that workforce of the future, not just the workforce of the now to ensure that our mission can thrive for decades to come.

And what I saw there was those regions, whether it was in California, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, those regions that were doing it best, all had a museum or a science center somewhere in that region that could bring. What the teachers were teaching in science, you know, kind of teaching to the test, the, the science,

Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:05] Yes.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:13:06] and tribute that can bring it to life in a very different way.

And so I was lucky enough to, to build lots of partnerships throughout that time, whether it’s with, with companies like, like space X and Elon Musk, also to the, the, the Challenger Center. Right. Which was the Challenger, the spouses of the challenger astronauts who got together after the tragic accident in 1986, who wanted to build a legacy for their fallen heroes.

And so everywhere I would travel, I would call, someone from the challenger center and say, Hey, I’m going to this place, this museum, would you like me to, you know, talk to them about maybe having a challenger center. I went to Allentown, Pennsylvania. And talk to the executive director of the DaVinci science center.

I went to visit him to talk about the challenger center. So we talked for a while and he said, Hey, Just wanted to let you know that, this is great stuff, but I just announced that I’m resigning. And so you’re going to have to tell the next person, but we talked a little bit about my background in workforce development, and he said, you should call the, the, the board of directors, the chair of the board.

And so I did, and, they ended up hiring me as the CEO of the DaVinci science center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. And so then over about four or five years, we built. The DaVinci science center from, you know, a cool place to go on a, on a rainy day to take your kids to one where, we actually became the model as designated by the white house of, region to, to ultimately build up a technical.

Workforce. So it was something we were very proud of, but, ultimately then I found out about this place called the air zoo in Kalamazoo and thought if I could bring all of those connections, I’ve made those, those lessons I’ve learned in terms of really having an educational and workforce development impact on the community.

That’s what I want to do. And sure enough, here we are. And over the last seven years, we’ve been able to do that.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:15:07] And this is, this is impressive. And, and I know we’ve we’ve today. During, before we got into this interview, we’ve talked a lot about experience and stuff. What I would like to do is I would kind of like to talk about  where the museum was when you first got here, what your vision was for it, and then how you have managed to pull off the impossible.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:15:31] Okay. Well, yeah, the, the air zoo in 2019, was 40 years old. It was actually started in 1979 and, started by, while our two founders and some of their friends who used to, fly old Warbirds around and realize that there was a lot of community interest in those airplanes. And they ultimately decided that they were going to.

Start a museum, started with very humble beginnings, five aircraft, all named after animals. Hence the name, air zoo.  but, but from there over the next 33 years, I suppose, before I arrived, they built up what is an absolutely remarkable air and space museum. I’m so immersive. Whether you look at the aircraft, you look at the hand painted floors, the mural, all of that.

And, it was, it was incredible. It really, and, and it still is. But when I first walked in and saw these airplanes and saw the spacecraft and I, and really started to think about the experiences that we can build on around between all of these amazing things to bring the history. Of aviation and space to life.

Bring the science, the technology of all of these aircraft and spacecraft to life in a, in a much more interactive and immersive way. Creating. New education programs. And we’ve done now over a hundred new education programs, which take concepts like kinetic and potential energy. When you think about that for an airplane.

Well, we have kids coming in on field trips, summer camps, where scout camps, they’re building roller coasters and rolling a ball down a track to understand how potential energy at the top of the track transfers to kinetic energy at the bottom. And, and then relating that back to. The flight of an aircraft.

We have kids do lots of crazy chemical concoctions in, in, in our education labs, but then we’re relating that back to how jet fuel and rocket fuel work to get these incredible. Hunks of metal off the ground in the

Cliff Duvernois: [00:17:43] get them in the air.


Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:17:44] so, so we’ve, we’ve really expanded that mission. And I’m so thankful to my board of directors.

When I first laid out this, this idea, this vision that I had in my head to become much more of an interactive educational learning experience that, that they said, you know what? This makes sense. We’re going to invest in being able to do this. And we’ve seen. The results. We’ve seen numerical results where we’ve grown from about 119,000 people that were inspiring in 2013 to 2019.

We were at 204,000. So we’ve seen incredible growth. so we’ve seen that broadly, but also deeply as we are. Impacting young people and just taking it away, walk on the exhibit floor and seeing young people play with, with some of our exhibits around, you know, building blocks or, or understanding Bernoulli’s principle by, by basically levitating, a small ball, you know, with the, with the air pressure, we see real impact happening.

We see real learning happening, but then we also see real desire for people. To want more, to ask more questions to, to, to want to just learn new things, not from a textbook, but with their hands and their minds and their hearts. And every day I walk in here and whether it’s a hundred people in here or a family of three, just seeing that kind of interaction.

Makes me know that all 300 or so volunteers and staff members of the air zoo are making a big difference in Southwest, Michigan and beyond.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:19:31] They definitely are. And I want to cover that a little bit more, but I want to, I want to talk about something that you brought up when you were talking about interactivity and you’re talking about the, the, the levitating ball is that, you know, during our tour, the one thing that I have to say that I really appreciated about the, the effort and work that you’ve put in here.

Is not just having an exhibit on the floor that just says, Oh, look at this cool thing, but you actually tie it back to the math. You tie it back to the science that is behind it. So for instance, you know, we’ve been talking about Bernoulli’s equation and I first got exposed to that back in chemistry class.

And it meant nothing to me. You know, it was just a bunch of letters written on a paper and I struggled to figure it out, but to be able to see it in action, then you truly understand. What it is. And I think for, for a lot of kids going through school, being able to see math applied, being able to see science apply to the real world, I think is, is a real eyeopening experience.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:20:31] There is no doubt. And the, your reference to Bernoulli’s equation, I think is the perfect example of that. And as, as we look at where that sits on the exhibit floor, really adjacent to some of these world war II aircraft, like the  similar for me, understanding the equations. Didn’t help me ever look at the B 25 and understand how it is even possible, that that thing can get off the ground.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:00] Exactly.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:21:01] And so, so having even, even young kids and adults as well, being able to, to manipulate that and experiment with that exhibit and then really think about because they can feel it, how the air pressure. Down underneath that ball is basically levitating. It as air goes all the way up and around it, the, with the, the, the lower air pressure up top.

And then, then you start to think like, okay, so if you had enough of it, you can get. Heavier materials if that wind was, was moving faster or, or, w w then you think about heavier things that may be, can get off the ground. And then you look at some of the designs of these aircraft and you think about, you know, how that can possibly happen underneath a wing when you hit a certain speed to get off the runway, it starts to make sense so much more than it ever did for me, in any sort of textbook.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:59] Yes. And I agree, and that’s something I could riff on for the next four hours. Unfortunately, we don’t have that time and I wish we did because there’s some cool stories there. What I would like to do is I would like to talk about, some of the, and I’m going to basically just call them passion projects.

You guys have. Somehow or another gotten some beautiful aircraft off the bottom of the great lakes of Michigan brought them up after 40, 50, 60 years, you know? And not only is it just a matter of restoring though, cause I think this is a very interesting transition when you first started restoring these aircraft, you had them in a building, but then all of a sudden you said, you know, we’re actually going to take them out of that building and we’re going to put them out so the public can see.

How we’re restoring these aircraft, but then you took it one step further and you’re inviting the public to be a part of that restoration, especially with students. Talk to us a little bit about that.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:22:48] That was just another, a big part of the vision I think, is working to make every piece of this exhibit floor interactive in some way, immersive in some way for our guests. And we, well, I guess to take back to, to some quick history back from 1942 to 1945, the Navy. Needed to train more pilots to, to fight in world war II.

And they didn’t have any aircraft carriers in order to train more pilots. So they bought two ships that took people in cargo up and down, the great lakes. They flattened their decks and they made two third scale aircraft carriers to train these pilots on Lake Michigan. So every day. The USS Sable and USS Wolverine would go out about 20 miles off the coast of Chicago.

And they would have pilots. If they, if the pilots could take off and land eight times in a row, then they are off to fight in the war. And so over those three plus years, they trained about 17,000. Relatively new pilots to do what is arguably the most difficult maneuver any pilot can do, which is land on a moving ship, not just moving laterally, but moving up and down a little bit too.

And so 17,000 pilots were trained, but at the same time, we lost about 130 aircraft into Lake Michigan. And over the last, now three plus decades, about 40 of them have been recovered. And so one of them was, brought to the air zoo. It had been an SPD that was on the bottom of Lake Michigan for 44 years.

And over about a nine year span, we, like you said, over in a building that wasn’t open to the public, our restoration team went and just really, as we say, restored it to its former glory. And so when I got here to the zoo and I learned more about these aircraft that had been on the bottom of Lake Michigan and hearing from our restoration team saying, Hey, get us a new project.

we heard about an FMT wild cat that was brought up from the bottom of Lake Michigan. After 68 years, it was brought up on December 7th, Pearl Harbor day of 2012. And I said, okay, team. And this team by the way, was one restoration manager in 75. Remarkably inspired and talented restoration volunteers. I said, okay, team, the Navy knows that you all are the best in the business.

So we’re going to hang our hat on that, but we’re going to maybe take a little chance and do something differently here. We’re going to tell the Navy that we’re going to restore this beautiful airplane, right on our exhibit floor. We’re going to make it part of our. Guest experience. So not only will get, be able to watch you restoring the aircraft.

Not only will guests be able to interact with you as you’re restoring the aircraft, but we’re going to build a program. Where guests can come in to work side-by-side with you on this historic aircraft, we’re going to invite school groups. We’re going to invite community organizations because we want our community through this.

What I think is the most amazing hands-on experience one can give, whether it’s

Cliff Duvernois: [00:26:13] I agree,

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:26:14] history, and such. We want our community to not only feel the inspiration, but feel the ownership. So when this aircraft goes to its final spot in some museum, somewhere in the country, it’s going to go with a plaque that says this aircraft was restored by the entire Southwest Michigan community at the air zoo.

And we’re going to have a plaque with every single person’s name on it. So right now we have about 1,200 names for that FMT wild cat going from middle school. Students all the way up to a 92 year old, former women’s air force service pilot named Jane Doyle, who came down here, got a tour of, of the air zoo and worked on that airplane.

And so when I think about, like we said, that inspirational hands-on piece and, and what it really means to people. I think how many young people did we just inspire

Cliff Duvernois: [00:27:18] Right?

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:27:18] because they came and maybe they did a little sanding or a little grinding to clean off some of the pieces of, of that Wildcat, but it’s something that they will remember forever.

And we’re hearing stories. More and more from young people who say, in fact, we had a visitor recently who came and said that he is now flying for the air force and he used to come here to the air zoo. And he used to engage in, in those classes. We’ve heard from engineers and in such. And so it gets back to the idea that there are so many young people here in Kalamazoo throughout our region.

Who we know have the talent and the skills to become our next generation of heroes for, for science and technology and engineering and math and such. If we can just give them that one moment where they realize they can really do it. Outside of the textbook, outside of watching a TV program, they can really do it with their hands and they can fall in love with this stuff.

And those careers are out there for them. So we’re not going to rest until we get to everybody.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:28:34] You know, I, I got to go back to something you said at the beginning of our interview, when you said, you know, you, you wanted to have more students have an experience like you did when you realize that there’s this beautiful universe out there too. To explore. And, it sounds like you’ve got the right people in place to make that happen.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:28:52] We do. I am so thankful for our team, our 70 full-time and part-time staff members and our 250 volunteers who do everything from greet people. When they come in, they are. Docents giving tours all over our restoration volunteers. They help with our collections. They help with our exhibits and their mission is so similar to mine, which is ultimately our mission in doing just that for our young people, for every experience, to make sure that we’re doing it in such a way that that aha moment has the highest potential to happen.

And when we think even right here in the Kalamazoo area with companies like striker and Pfizer and Eaton Parker, aerospace Duncan, aviation, as they’re thinking about their future workforce. We recognize that many of these companies, if they could, they would hire these kids right now, if they had the skills and they had the passion.

So, so as we talk about like a workforce development pipeline, it’s our job to fatten that pipeline up with, with the elementary and middle school students, you know, as much as we can and say, if you are falling in love with this stuff, these companies are going to be ready to hire you. And here’s the pathway to get there.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:30:21] Yes. Because it’s definitely a field, that once you get bit by that bug, it’s, it’s always in you.

It always says. And speaking of inspiring kids, I want to talk about the, the impact that COVID-19 has had on your museum and, and a lot, like, just like a number of places you guys had to close down and granted, I’ve only known you really for last couple of hours, but somehow or another, I get the impression that, that didn’t stop you.

So why don’t you share with us? What kind of like, how do you, how did you continue carrying on your mission? The, the museum’s music, the museum’s mission during that time?

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:30:58] Well, we not only said we weren’t going to stop, but we practice that. So when we shut down on March 13th at 2:00 PM in the afternoon, We called everyone together and all team meeting all of our staff, all of our volunteers and said, yes, this is what we have to do now.

But this is also the moment that we’re going to stop talking about having to shut down. And we’re going to start talking about what we need to look like. When we reopened and looking at each group, the exhibits group and say, you know, w what is it going to look like for us with these interactive exhibits?

What do we need to do to ensure whenever it is that we open that we are making sure that safety is the number one goal for, for that, with our collections team, similarly, with our educators saying, okay, we know. That when we open up, we’re not going to have the 36,000 students coming in and, and doing these, these hands-on experiments and things like that.

So what do we need to look like in order to ensure that that impact, that educational impact is continuing, but in a different way, our operations team, our guest experience team, and that’s how we ultimately stayed in growth mode throughout the entire four months that we were. Completely shut down. And when I think about our, our education team, they went to work immediately taking the best of what we do in our classrooms and they created virtual summer camps.

And so we, throughout the summer had young people from Kalamazoo all the way to California, to Mexico, North Carolina, who were engaged in. Real hands-on science. And as we talk about experiential learning, We took that virtualization to a whole other level. We said, we’re not going and have the kids just watch us do experiments online.

So we took, for example, an electricity and magnetism class, and we created kits that included circuit boards and things like that, that when a child signed up for our class, Either the parents would come to pick up this kit or we would ship it as far as we needed to. So when we were teaching electricity and magnetism and the kids were, not only watching our educator in real-time building this circuit board, they were doing the same thing at home.

And so they were, Creating their own solutions. They were failing gloriously, which has, I think, you know, is one of my favorite terms to fail gloriously because that is how we learn more than when we succeed. And, and, and so. The coolest, I think by-product unexpected byproduct of this is we knew that that kids were we’re to all come up with different solutions, even different than our edge cater was, was doing.

And, you know, we expected that there was going to be some nice interactivity between the student and the teacher saying, so this didn’t work. you know, how do I do this differently? How do I do this better? But what was even more amazing? Was seeing these kids from all over the place. They didn’t know each other talking to each other saying, Oh, I did this.

And it worked. Oh, but, but I did this other thing and it didn’t work. So can, can you show me what you did? And maybe I can do something differently. And science is great. Communicating science. Makes science really impactful and watching these young people, these elementary school kids that first, second, third graders talk about, you know, willing to say mine didn’t work, but I’d love to see yours to see how I might be able to do something a little bit differently.

 those sorts of soft skills, the collaboration, the communication will serve these kids well forever, no matter what they do. So seeing that happen. That unexpected impact was fantastic. And so with the incredible success we had for our summer camps, we have now taken many of our field trip programs that we do here.

And are doing the same thing. We’re doing it for school groups for actual school classes, for homeschool groups, for scout groups as well. And we’re working with organizations like communities and schools and 21st century learning the Kalamazoo youth development network to provide this kind of programming with kids as much as we possibly can, to really continue to bring science to life.

For our community, which has grown well beyond our community.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:35:49] Yes, definitely. And I have to give you hats off on that for, you know, just not letting kids sit in front of a screen and just watch your you’re making them a part of it. And I think it just makes the learning that much more impactful.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:36:04] I think so, too. And, and I’m also thankful that we haven’t heard from any parents who said, Hey, thank you for messing up our kitchen Island because

Cliff Duvernois: [00:36:11] down our

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:36:12] because you have, you have kids doing, you know, some fun chemistry experiments where the chemical reactions are causing all of these things.

And, we get nothing, but. Thanks from those parents saying exactly what you just said. I don’t want to sign up, but my kids are already going to school. And I said this, even for myself, my own kids are going to school seven hours a day. We’re looking at a screen, but the, in these parents are saying, I don’t want to sign my kid up just to look at a screen for another hour or two hours.

What you’ve done is you’ve brought everything on that screen. To life and really the same sort of things that we’re doing here, having that impact, hoping to have that aha moment and, and such we’ve found a way to do it. And I’m thankful to say that we, we get inquiries from museums all around the country.

And in terms of, you know, asking how we’re doing that, what are the, what are the logistics, even behind creating these kits and sending them out and how, how all of that happens. just, just our w we built a 32 page what we called our re-entry plan, everything it’s going to take for us to ultimately reopen.

And it was every person in every department contributing to this plan. I’m going to have to toot our operations horn a little bit here to say that that plan, was actually hailed by the Michigan museums association, who, who said. The air zoo is really kicking COVID, but, and, and so they asked us to share that with all the museums around the state.

And in fact, the Smithsonian in DC, the air and space museum contacted me and asked if they could share it with all of the. the Smithsonian museums, in DC and beyond. And it was so flattering. I mean, we’ve, we’ve talked about how, you know, the, the air zoo is, is sort of this, this little engine that could, right.

Because we were afraid of nothing. We are not afraid of failing. we’re the only thing we’re afraid of is not doing something because we were afraid, have something and to be able to. Have that kind of success and be recognized by our peers, whether it’s through the virtual learning that we’re doing, or our re-entry planning really gives our entire team confidence that when we get through this, we are going to be in such growth mode.

That there’s nothing we can’t do from here.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:38:41] Yeah. And I agree with that because I w I would think that, you know, having, having a physical location you’re limited by the people that you have doing this virtually there is no limit,

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:38:52] so true and, and virtual programming while it is all the rage right now, it’s not going to go away.

It will, it will always be an option. So as, as I’ve talked to the board about investing in all of this equipment, in order to be able to do this, I assured them that this was not anything that was reactionary. This, this wasn’t, Hey, let’s put in thousands of dollars. And, you know, when this whole thing is over, then we’re just going to go, go put that back in a closet somewhere, the impact that we’ve been able to show.

I think means that certainly outside of our region, we’re going to be able to grow that customer base of young people, which, Oh, by the way, always replenishes. But, but, but we’re going to, we’re going to continue to be able to grow this function at the year zoo for a very long time.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:39:46] I bet. And I would almost think too that, because you made the comment earlier about how this isn’t going away.

I think eventually we would have gotten to this point, but COVID really accelerated it. So I got to give a hat tip to, to you and your staff. For, for being responsive, staying on your mission. A lot of people out there, I know if they get on a mission, something like this happens, they’re like, ah, you know what?

We’ll just pick it up in a year or year and a half. You guys did not stop. You’re like, okay, so we can’t do this anymore. Now we’re going to implement something new.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:40:18] Well, our fifth and my favorite era zoo value. Is to be fearlessly innovative. And that was a huge part of that message on March 13th at about two Oh five.

Was this is the time. Yes, we can be fearlessly innovative when things are fun and when things are going well, and Oh, if it didn’t work, Oh, well we can just do something else, but this is the time to really not be afraid. To change to be different, to be better in, in the wake of w you know, what is, what is this scary time?

you know, we knew financially things were going to be tough, but we said we can’t let that stop us either. And I will say having those values and living them every day, not just on March 13th, but for years before that as well. Made our team immediately say, yes, we’ve, we’ve, we’ve done this before and we can do this.

So there was no trepidation around the idea that we are just going to move forward and, and, and fearlessly means we’re not going to be afraid to mess up. We’re not going to be afraid to fail because. We’re going into such an unknown uncharted waters at that point, you know, having no idea how long we were going to be closed, what we were going to be looking like when we were going to be to reopen, but the only people who could figure that out was us, the only people who could figure out exactly what we needed to look like was us there, there isn’t a manual out there.

So we’re going to create one. And that’s what we did with our reentry plan. And. Having people who live that value there, wasn’t a lot of convincing that I needed to do. So I didn’t need to stand up like, like Braveheart or something and do this, this big inspirational speech because it was already in people’s hearts. And that’s what we did.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:42:13] I’m going to start calling you mr. Soundbite. Cause everything that you’re saying is just spot on. I’m like, man, this is like, absolutely great. I do want to go back and talk about something now, because this is just taking a step back here. I’m going to kind of put you on the spot. You know, when you talk about fearlessly innovate, which by the way I do that in my own life, every single day, some people would almost, I, you could almost substitute the word in there, you know, like, you know, fearlessly fail.

Because you will fail more often than, than you succeed. And I’m a big believer in failure is actually the path forward. You not only embrace that philosophy, but you make it as part of your culture, which by the way, I think has a huge impact on why this place is just so cool. Why don’t you talk to us a little bit about first off, where did this even come from and how do you get people comfortable with failing that failing is okay.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:43:07] So where it came from.

When I left NASA, I went back to grad school and.

I went for a master’s degree in geology. And I went for one weekend on a Friday, I was working for NASA on the Hubble space telescope by Monday, I was living next to a glacier in a tent in Alaska.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:43:30] That’s so

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:43:30] So,  and I was up there for a total of about a year.  and I have to slowly tell this story because I don’t tell it too often.

And it is quite emotional, but this will get to the whole failing gloriously thing. Every day, I would have to walk up on the glacier and, I was. Studying how weather patterns affect how much a glacier melts and how much it recedes. It was a 27 mile long Valley glacier, about 110 miles Northeast of Anchorage.

And so I would put 24 empty water bottles on my pack. I would go up and walk across the face of the glacier. And take out the 24 full water bottles, full of sediment and, and water. And then, you know, put the empty water bottles in and do this a couple of times every day. So one day in may, I woke up, there was about three inches of snow on the ground.

And so I knew it was, a dangerous time because melt season was just beginning. And when there’s snow, especially when there’s, there’s like a, what’s called frazzle ice that is created, you can walk across the glacier and not actually see the curve crevasses, the giant

Cliff Duvernois: [00:44:40] Wow. Okay. All

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:44:41] So, I. Put the water bottles on my back.

I got my, my ice ax because I knew that, you know, that I needed that. So I went up on the glacier. I poked at every single step before I made it to make sure I wasn’t going to just fall straight down into the glacier. I got all the way across. I exchanged the water bottles and headed back thinking, you know, Troy you’re, you’re a pretty smart guy.

So, all you got to do is retrace your steps and you’re going to be okay. And as I often say in talks, when I talk about this, Isaac Newton was like saying to me right now, no, there’s more to it than that because I just put about 36 more pounds on my back then I had on the way out. And so I got about halfway across the face of the glacier and I just fell straight down into it.

And nobody was around, there was no cell phones or anything like that. the next, probably 10 seconds of my life, I will never remember. It was absolute. Fight or flight. And I stripped off my pack. the, the crevasse was filled with basically what’s called super frozen water. So water under pressure can actually get below 32 degrees.

But when it comes out, then it’s sort of like can start to create sort of like ice chunks and stuff like that. but I had walls of ice on both sides of me. I don’t remember how I got out, but when I did my, I was a mess. Maybe my arms were, but I mean, it was scratching and clawing for life. I had 40 seconds.

So I got out and was thrilled that I was safe, but then recognize that it was 20 degrees. And I had about a two mile walk back and my clothes were going to start freezing. So that whole time I thought about the people that I didn’t get to say goodbye to the people that I wasn’t nice to, all the things that I haven’t done in my life that I still needed to do.

And that two mile walk. It felt like it took two years, but, eventually I got back and, and it changed everything about my worldview. It was an experience that I would never wish on anyone, but an experience that I want everyone to have because. I am really, I mean, admittedly outside of like climbing up too high on a ladder, I am pretty much afraid of nothing.

And and, and that is where like the, the, the fearlessly innovative for me really comes from because I recognize what it, what it was like to, to think you’ve lost everything. And. What it is like to, you know, stare just all of these minor things in the face. And just simply say, we got this because if I say, I’m not going to do it, I know I’m going to regret so much more than if I simply say that we need to do this guys let’s just drive forward.

And so I live it every day and I need to make sure that everyone here sees that I live it every day because I will never expect. Anyone here to do anything that I wouldn’t do. So they need to know that I live these values. I mean, you know, they, they see me picking up garbage on the floor and it, because, cause I will, I will do, I will do everything they do and more, and they need to see that.

And so, so the whole fearlessly, innovative thing, challenging our staff to create a new exhibit that we’ve never seen or done before. Has now become more of a commonplace thing because they understand that they have a very long proverbial leash and that if they fail, we’re going to have a celebration. we are we’re, we’re going to celebrate, you know, as much as we would when it opened, because we’re going to talk about what we learned. So the next time we do it, we’re going to be so much closer to a solution. And it is so humbling to see staff and volunteers who are just committed to that.

Recognizing, as I say, I live it so they can model it. When I think about our educators, our educators live it so our students can model it because that’s what science is all about. Right. I mean, you know, how many times did Thomas Edison have to fail? How many times did, did Albert Einstein have to fail?

And, and, and all of that science is about the whole scientific process is, is about coming up with a hypothesis. And should we doing something knowing you’re probably going to fail, but you’re going to learn. You’re, you’re going to have to change your assumptions and go back and do it a little bit differently next time.

And that it may take two times. It may take a hundred times, but ultimately you are going to get. To that solution, but you’re not, if you’re afraid to fail. And at that first time of failure, you stop. And so we model it as an organization. Talk about it everywhere I can, because I want everybody who comes here, whether they’re working on an exhibit or, or doing some sort of physics experiment or something like that, I want them to not be afraid.

I want them to say, you know, we failed the first time let’s innovate. Cause that’s what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives, by the way. We live our lives, innovating, going from curiosity to creativity, to innovation. That’s how it all works. Everything we do. So if we can teach kids and inspire them to fail gloriously in the search for innovation, we win and they win and we’ve succeeded in our mission

Cliff Duvernois: [00:50:00] cause she can’t move forward. Unless you try,

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:50:02] exactly.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:50:03] know, and nine times out of 10, you will fail. But you know, like you said, you learn every step of the way and you get better, man. I hate, I hate these Kenny interviews. Cause when they get to the end of us, like, ah, I don’t want them to end. So tell us, Troy, if people wanted to connect with you online, follow it is what you’re doing. Get more information about, you know, museum hours.

Cause you guys are open now where’s the best place for them to go?

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:50:27] Well, certainly air will give you a wonderful picture of. All of the things that we are up to, you can learn a lot about the artifacts that we have here, but of course, I will say there’s nothing like walking around and touching the real thing.

So, so get all the information in terms of when we’re open to all of the great experiences that we, that we have here. Also follow us on Facebook. We have over 50,000 followers where we are updating every day. All of the new things that we are doing here. And, I’ll tell you now would be a good time to, to start watching that Facebook page because in about a month, we are going to be the first non-government museum to receive an F one 17 stealth fighter that we’re going to be restoring getting back to that restoration.

And we’re going to be restoring. Right on our exhibit floor and ultimately then going to be having it right over here next to our sr 71 Blackbird. So, so it’s things like that, that we, you know, everything that, that we do, all of the changes that we’re making every day. We want our people to know, because even if they can’t get here to the air zoo, we want to find a way to impact them through social media

Cliff Duvernois: [00:51:37] and the sr 71. By the way, when I talked about an amalgamation of childhood dreams back in high school, when I was a freshman there, I found a book on the shelf that was all about hypersonic flight.

And in there with just picture after picture of the sr 71 and every day at lunch, I would go pull that book down, sit at a table and just, I don’t even remember reading the tax, but every day I was just enameled by the photos. So being able to walk over there and touch it just super cool. That’s a that’s it’s, it’s very, it’s really nice that, that your museum allows people to, to have that tactile experience with the aircraft.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:52:17] Yes. And that is a perfect example of how these artifacts are amazing with their they’re metal and they’re rubber and they’re plastic such, but it is the stories behind them that really make them powerful learning and inspiration tools.

And so here’s my promise to you. And I’m going to say this through the microphone. So you actually have a recording of this, but.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:52:36] can have that documented

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:52:37] is exactly right. So, so 13 months ago we had about 15  pilots were kind of since officers and mechanics descend here on the air zoo from all over the country and spend four days just talking to people, delivering their stories, doing big public presentations, signing autographs and t-shirts and, and all sorts of things.

And just being inspirational from Dawn to dusk and. They had such an amazing experience here that originally we thought, well, this was just going to be a one-time thing. But when they left to a person, they basically said, listen, when you’re ready to have us back, if we’re still alive, we’re going to be here.

And it was really the most inspirational event I have ever been a part of. So I am telling you now that. When it happens again, because we are continuing, continuing to have these conversations with these pilots, especially about when we reopen how we might be able to do this again for our community. I’m going to make sure that I get you a VIP pass or whatever, because I want you to really

Cliff Duvernois: [00:53:42] I would love

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:53:43] time with those heroes.

you know, when you think about the, the man who flew an aircraft faster than anyone else, you know, He’ll probably be here. The man who flew from West coast to East coast faster than anyone else. he was here before and he’ll probably be back here again and listening to their stories adjacent to this most beautiful and powerful aircraft.

In my opinion, ever flown, there is nothing more magical. There is nothing more powerful. There is nothing more inspirational, but there is nothing more humanizing. For people. Yeah. When you think about these mythical creatures who flew an sr 71, and you’re like, you know what? These are humble human beings who had a passion and the desire to make a difference in the world of aviation.

And that’s what they did, but they don’t consider themselves heroes. They will sit. For hours and hours to just talk about what makes them tick. And most importantly, seeing them look these young kids in the eye and say, you know, what, if you love this stuff, like, like I did, when I was young, you can be like me. Imagine that, imagine ten-year-old cliff. Right. Standing, looking down into the cockpit of this sr 71 here and having, a gentleman like Jerry Glasser, who flew this airplane and trained so many pilots to fly in this airplane, talking to you and saying, you can be like me, just keep loving this stuff.

Find that pathway. That’s pretty powerful.

Cliff Duvernois: [00:55:27] They don’t want to interview the end. Awesome. man, thank you so much for, for letting me let him be here today and, and for. Just, you know, sharing this wonderful thing. And, and I just, I got to say this to everybody. Who’s listening. You have to make it a point to get over here and see this. Even if you’re not.

in aerospace, Boff, I mean just the experience and that’s the term I’m going to use, but just the experience alone, you have to come and check this place out. It is pretty special. Troy, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. This is, this has been a very rare and real treat for me and for the audience.

So thank you. You are

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:56:02] Very welcome. And I’d like to make that not rare for you and the audience as well.

So we’d love to see everyone come by the air zoo and, always look me up really. And I say that to anyone listening that if you are passionate about this stuff, just look me up, send me an email. And I would love to, to greet you and say hello and talk to you about all the great things that you’re going to experience here at the years.


Cliff Duvernois: [00:56:23] Excellent. Count on a tray. Thank you.

Troy Thrash, AirZoo: [00:56:26] Thank you.