In the lobby of the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo MI, a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk hangs from the ceiling. But this isn’t the World War II fighter aircraft of documentaries and air shows: its iconic shark face is grinning and wearing lipstick.
It's a man's airplane with a feminine touch, a pink war machine that longtime Kalamazoo resident Suzanne DeLano Parish turned into her trademark. Parish was one of three women who were still living in the Kalamazoo area who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Barack Obama for their service during WW II.
After the war, Parish could not find employment as a pilot. She married Preston Pete Parish in 1948 and gave birth to five children. When her husband purchased a share in a single engine 35C Bonanza in 1959, her passion for flight was rekindled.
Throughout the 1970s, 80s and, Parish would bring her pink P-40 to air shows across the country, performing barrel rolls, loops and fly-overs. When she got out of the cockpit to meet the audience in her pink jumpsuit, she would take off the pink helmet and put on a cowboy hat decorated with flowers. They would see she wasn't just another John Wayne in the cockpit. Young girls flocked to her. The color of the P-40 was a mark of Parish attitude, it was also historically accurate. P-40s were painted pink in the Libyan desert as camouflage. She also painted her Cessna and T34 pink as well.
At 71, Parish realized she could no longer fly the P-40 and in October 1993, she flew it for the last time. It was an emotional day, where friends and family came to the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport to see her fly. When she landed, Parish got out and patted the plane. But that wouldnt be the last time she would sit in the cockpit. In December 2003, Parish sat in the cockpit of the P-40 again as it was towed into the lobby of the new Air Zoo facility. She was working the controls, turning the knobs and reliving a lifetime of flying that logged between 6,000 and 6,500 hours in the air.
When the plane was inside, Parish got out of the cockpit and patted the P-40 again. Now you can see Suzie sitting in the cockpit everyday, still making an impact.
Suzanne DeLano Parish died May 12, 2010.