Fly Behind the Scenes

Design Build Fly Halfway Finished
by Joseph Wisne

It’s late on a Tuesday afternoon, and a group of engineers, technicians, a project manager, and I are gathering around an airplane wing, asking ourselves a question familiar to any parent, or fire inspector.

“What’s that smell?”

The vague odor of jet fuel, or maybe some kind of cleaning solvent, permeates our immediate vicinity, which would be logical if we were standing on the airport tarmac, or in an airplane factory.  But we’re a bunch of exhibit builders, in the middle of Ohio, and this airplane wing – along with two fuselages, cockpits, engines, nose wheels and other parts – are sitting not in an airplane factory but in our 60,000 square foot exhibit factory.  Exhibit builders are crawling all over them, measuring, drilling, sanding, painting, mounting projectors, laying down glass floors, and grinding away sharp corners.

But a power grinder makes sparks, and sparks can ignite gasses like evaporated jet fuel, and our job is to build a world-leading interactive science exhibition, not blow one up!  Fortunately, the smell turns out to be residue from the wing’s empty fuel tanks, and is pretty harmless in the presence of sparks.  Whew, disaster averted!

Exploration Place is a leading U.S. science-technology center, and we are delighted that the museum chose our company to help design and build this exciting new exhibit, Design Build Fly.  The exhibit will occupy more than 5,000 square feet and contain nearly 50 different interactive experiences, from across Wichita’s world of aviation design, engineering, manufacturing and test flight.  Some exhibits are based in digital technology, while others are mechanical.  Some exhibits blow air, some shake and vibrate, some will simulate flying, and some exhibits will actually fly!  Because the project incorporates interactive elements into many parts of real airplanes, it is one of the most sophisticated and challenging designs in our company’s history.

Presently, the Design Build Fly exhibition is about half-way finished. Our partners in the aviation industry in Wichita, along with our colleagues at the science center, are just as busy as we are, shipping us parts, chasing down information or photography, and helping our engineers and builders accurately reflect the real people, tools and processes that are used every day in Wichita’s biggest industry.  Some of these partners will physically build big structures in which to mount the airplane sections, a process that requires careful coordination between all parties, to be sure that the exhibits fit the airplane parts and the airplane parts fit the museum gallery.

This project started with just a single concept illustration.  Roto designers rendered a corporate jet filling the exhibit gallery, but split into three large pieces.  In the drawing, an unfinished tail section is seen flying high from the ceiling behind an elevated fuselage section.  This fuselage was shown in a half-built condition, just like it would look on the factory floor, with yellow insulation exposed, carbon fiber unpainted with open holes where windows go, and unfathomable miles and miles of tubing, cables, wires and ducts strung all throughout the floors, walls and ceilings.  In front of that, a fully-completed first-class cabin and cockpit, all decked out with leather and digital avionic instruments.  I’m proud to report that Design Build Fly, after more than 3 years and tens of thousands of hours of work, will look a whole lot like that first rendering!

During the next few months, as the final exhibit elements are completed, they will be thoroughly tested here in our shop by test groups, much the same way that software is tested and debugged prior to release.  This is to ensure that after installation the finished exhibition will hold up to the thousands of weekly visitors who come to Exploration Place, and last not just for a few months, but for ten years or longer.  The durability of modern interactive exhibits is similar to the durability requirements of real airplanes, and just like the aviation industry, interactive exhibits must be continuously maintained to be sure they’re always in good working order.  So, in addition to shipping and installing the exhibition later this year, we will be busy compiling technical manuals, making parts lists, and collecting plenty of spares.

But opening day is still a half-year away, and we have many exhibits to finish.  Software must be coded, mechanisms machined from 3D models and assembled into working order, a thousand feet of LED lighting strips installed into various airplane cavities.  Graphics must be written, designed, printed and mounted.  Audio-visual speakers, touchscreens, projectors and controllers installed.  All to give Exploration Place visitors of every age group four dozen different things to push, pull, build, make, study, fly, and experiment with.

There’s even an exhibit that smells like jet fuel!


Joseph Wisne is President and CEO of Roto Group LLC, one of the leading planners, designers and builders of engaging museum exhibits in North America.  They are based in Dublin, Ohio.

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