Inside Track: One immersive experience prompts another for CEO


One of Troy Thrash's goals is to spark students' interest in work force development, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. Photo by Michael Buck

Troy Thrash has gazed at the universe’s galaxies, and has unexpectedly plunged into an icy-cold fissure in Alaska. Between those two extremes, the native of Allentown, Pa., has reached a handful of conclusions.

First, after clawing his way out of freezing cold water, subsequent challenges Thrash has encountered haven't rattled him all that much. And second, after staring into the expanse of space, including through the Hubble Space Telescope, Thrash considers it a bit arrogant of some humans who conclude they’re the big cheese of the universe.


The Air Zoo
Position: President/CEO
Age: 42
Birthplace: Allentown, Pa.
Residence: Kalamazoo
Family: Wife, Jody; children, Jada, Gavin, Brynnica and Dawson.
Business/Community Involvement: Former member of Pennsylvania Youth Theater and Lee High Workforce Investment boards, as well as Galaxy Explorers, SkillsUSA and Transportation Education Foundation of Georgia.

Biggest Career Break: Receiving a telescope from his parents when he was 7, which launched a passion for space and science and taught him to ask why.


“There’s a dichotomy that we’re the most advanced race when you look up at the night sky and see billions of stars and galaxies. You have to ask, how significant are we?” said Thrash. “With the Big Bang Theory is the idea we’re star stuff, which is really humbling.”

However, Thrash isn’t of the opinion people should twiddle their thumbs in pointless nihilism.

“Opportunity is what has shaped me,” he said.

Case in point is what happened in January when the Portage-based Air Zoo’s board of directors gave Thrash the nod to become its next president/CEO, following the retirement of Bob Ellis after 35 years of service.

The Air Zoo, which last year drew 120,000 patrons from around the world, is part aircraft museum, part homage to space artifact and part restoration of vintage airplanes. It features more than 50 rare and historic aircraft, including the world’s only remaining Z0-55 Ascender and Thrash’s favorite, a SR-71B Blackbird, which served as a training craft.

“In my mind, it’s a marriage of airplane and rocket flying on the edge of space,” Thrash said of the pointy-nosed Blackbird. “It’s a remarkable machine.”

The museum also houses interactive exhibits and education programs, several nonmilitary aircraft, the Aviation Hall of Fame and the Midwest’s first 4-D theater, as well as a simulated flight to the International Space Station. A 50,000-square-foot expansion in 2011 made room for the “Space: Dare to Dream” exhibit, an exhibit about women air force service pilots, a World War II naval aviation gallery and a climate-controlled archive and library.

Prior to hiring on at the Air Zoo, Thrash was the executive director and CEO of the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown from 2009 to January of this year. Before that, he was the executive director of the National Aerospace Development Center in Alpharetta, Ga., and a contributor to several other organizations focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and work force development, including SkillsUSA, the Federation of Galaxy Explorers, the Civil Air Patrol and FIRST Robotics.

Thrash gained experience in the aerospace industry as a senior aerospace engineer for Analytical Graphics Inc. in Malvern, Pa., where he served as lead technical marketer, systems engineer and programmer of the world’s leading space analysis software.

He also had a stint at Futron Corp., an aerospace consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., as a senior program manager and later as division director of space and telecommunications. In those roles, Thrash managed several large-scale projects for clients including the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, International Launch Services, the U.S. Strategic Command and the National Strategic Space Office.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in astronomy and astrophysics from Villanova University in 1992, Thrash went to work at the Hubble Space Science Institute, the telescope’s space operations center located on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus in Baltimore, as a science planning team member. That stint afforded him the opportunity to meet the astronauts who were sent up to replace the telescope with new optical components.

Then, 17 years ago, Thrash did sediment studies on the Matanuska Glacier, which is about 100 miles northeast of Anchorage, for his master’s thesis in geology at Lehigh University. It nearly cost him his life. He recalls returning to camp with 24 empty bottles on his back. He then returned to the glacier with 24 full bottles.

The added weight forced Thrash through a snow-covered crevice and into freezing water. Hypothermia soon set in. Attempts to pull himself out of the water proved futile.

“I scratched and clawed, but to this day, I have no idea how I got out,” he said. “I was bloody when I got out and made it back to camp.”

Thrash’s take away from that near-death experience is that work-a-day stress and strains are manageable. “I don’t know anything more difficult than that,” he said.

With Thrash’s professional prowess, no one need tell him he’s steeped in a STEM background. He also knows educators and employers are warning that the United States — and Michigan — needs more qualified people to join the STEM work force.

Given that reality, isn’t it a bit of a lateral move for Thrash to helm an aircraft museum? He sees what he intends to accomplish at the Air Zoo in a different light. While the museum pays homage to past aeronautical accomplishments, he also wants it to spark students’ interest in work force development.

“When you go back in history, everything I have done in science and research was to build this idea that research and knowledge are great, but if it’s not shared, it isn’t very useful,” said Thrash. “It becomes much more educational when it’s used for work force development.”

Thrash said he intends to encourage students to consider getting skin in the STEM game by inspiring them with that “aha” moment.

“In some ways, we want to project them with this mission, we want to be an immersive experience, to see the future, to see they can do things with their hands and go beyond the science in their textbooks,” he said.

“Kids aren’t doing much science in their classrooms,” continued Thrash. “We want to give them the opportunity to do science with their minds and heads and with their hearts. We want to ignite that future work force.”

To achieve that goal, Thrash sees the Air Zoo “evolving from an interactive museum to a real immersive experience,” he said. “Think about hands-on education activities that can be taking place all over the floor.”

That likely will involve partnering with employers and outreach programs with area school districts and community centers.

“That gets into educational equality: Who has access to the Air Zoo?” said Thrash. “If we don’t do something about the talent we’re letting slip through the cracks, they’re missing that ‘aha’ moment. Not every kid has to become a scientist or engineer, but opening them up to the idea is critically important.”

When he looks at aviation history, Thrash said the speed of aircraft improvements is remarkable. Outer space exploration, on the other hand, has the short shrift in the public’s eye, he believes.

“There’s a lack of understanding of what space flight has brought to those living on Earth, including NASA and some of the commercial companies today,” said Thrash.

Still, efforts should be made to soldier on with a manned mission to Mars, said Thrash. Getting there won’t be a cakewalk. There is no adversary egging the U.S. to make it to the Red Planet first, like there was when the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were vying to be the first to make a lunar landing.

“But we still have a lot to learn about lower earth orbit and working in a zero gravity environment,” he said.

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