An incredible array of classic airplanes and space artifacts are on display at the Smithsonian Institution's new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located on over 175 acres near Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. The 760,057 square-foot facility (officially part of the National Air and Space Museum) opened in December 2003 and includes a large aviation exhibit hangar, a separate space exhibit hangar, and an observation tower from which visitors can watch air traffic at Dulles, as well as classrooms, a large-format theater, food service, and other support services.

Over 80 aircraft and dozens of space artifacts are on display, ranging from the Space Shuttle Enterprise and an SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft to the Dash 80 prototype of the Boeing 707, the B-29 Enola Gay, the de Havilland Chipmunk plane, and a super-sonic Concorde. “This is a major new property. You go in and your jaw drops. The real version of every model airplane I put together as a kid is in there,” says Bill Warner of Atmosphere, Inc., a lighting systems and production services company located in Silver Spring, MD.

Atmosphere served as the production company for a series of opening events at the Udvar-Hazy Center, with Warner filling the roles of production manager and technical director. The lighting designer was Robin Lyttle, a freelance LD based in Washington DC, who has done a lot of work for the Smithsonian and specializes in modern dance lighting. Both Atmosphere and Lyttle were brought onto the project by Hargrove, Inc., the event producer and decorator, located in Lanham, MD.

The opening events — ranging from a salute to veterans and a gala dinner to the official dedication ceremony — took place over three days in December. Events were held in the aviation hangar, a 10-story Quonset hut with rigging for many heavy-weight objects and a glass window at each end (these were blacked out with black plastic drapes for the daytime dedication ceremony). “There was even a million-dollar prop,” says Warner, referring to a full-size mockup of Orville and Wilbur Wright's original 1903 Wright Flyer. “The opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center was perfectly timed, just a few days before the 100th anniversary of flight,” Warner says.

The festivities kicked off on December 9 with a special “Salute to Veterans” during the day. “This event was in the north end of the aviation hangar,” says Warner, noting that the hangar is over a quarter mile long. The salute was an appreciation event honoring veterans who participated in the various aspects of the development of flight. The scenic elements included a blue patriotic backdrop with two panels of navy blue fabric with white silk-screened stars. These panels flanked white muslin panels with star fields projected by ETC Source Fours, with metal gobos from Apollo. Additional Source Fours were used to light the stage itself.

The gala dinner was also held at this end of the facility on December 10. “Things were more low key at this end,” says Warner. One truss system was put into place for both the veteran's salute and the gala dinner, with a long span of Thomas truss and a single light plot that was used for both events (Thomas truss was used throughout the project along with CM Lodestar motors). The look for the gala dinner included additional white muslin panels lit with Source Four PAR uplights in a range of colors, from mauve to blue, including Lee 180 (dark lavender) and Rosco 59 (indigo). Gobos with clouds and branches were projected on the fabric, using Lee 201 (full CT blue) to add color.

The scenery was framed within the hangar door. “The door was at least 40' tall and 140' wide and is like a big, flat garage door with a huge opening mechanism,” says Warner. “There was no way to rig an upstage truss, so it was easier to uplight the fabric panels from the ground. The turn-around time for events like this is very limited. They were open as a museum the next morning.”

To add ambient light for the dinner, 18" Altman scoops were used with Lee 170 (deep lavender). “They acted as low-level house lights with a pleasant pink glow for conversation,” says Warner. A 12'-diameter Smithsonian logo medallion was lit with Source Four 19° units with irises, hung on the overhead truss and gelled with Rosco 02 (bastard amber). Source Four 26° washlights in Rosco 333 (blush pink) lit the stage, and R132 (quarter Hamburg frost) was used for front light on the podium “to soften the edge,” adds Warner. PAR38 pin spots added additional light to the centerpieces on the tables.

Six High End System Technobeams were added to the rig for the dance floor at the gala. “We just wanted to put a little movement on the floor,” explains Warner. “We didn't want the lighting to be overpowering, so there were no big sweeps or anything like that, just a little motion to break up the space visually.”

Video screens were hung off stage left and right, and were used for image magnification, video presentations, and PowerPoint with logos. The projectors, Barco R8s, were provided by CPR MultiMedia Solutions of Gaithersburg, MD, who also provided the video systems in conjunction with Atmosphere. The dimmers for the project, from EDI and Teatronics, were tucked along the side of the building with long cable runs from the truss to permanent catwalks along the perimeter, then to the floor. Power came from Kohler generators placed outside.

The official dedication event took place during the day of December 11. Special guests ranged from Vice President Dick Cheney to astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, to actor John Travolta, and the surviving pilot of the Enola Gay. The view of the museum was hidden by four large Kabuki drops, and the audience entered through a tunnel of fabric to add to the mystery.

“During the 90 minutes it took for the 2,500 guests to be seated, there were projections on the Kabuki drops,” explains Warner. “The projections were from Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance and Profile units with high-resolution, black and white glass gobos from Apollo of airplanes, star patterns, the moon, the sun, clouds, and nebulae, trying to give the feeling of going through a day — from sunrise to a lightning storm and a plane flying by — anything you might see by looking up at the sky.”

The highpoint of this ceremony was its conclusion, which featured the replica of the Wright Flyer. “This was built using the same materials as the original: wood, canvas, and cable,” says Warner. (In fact, this is the model that then went to North Carolina for the Wright Brothers' anniversary celebration.) Carefully rigged by Sapsis Rigging of Landsdowne, PA, the model was hung on a 190' computer-controlled Flying by Foy track that allowed it to move both vertically and horizontally. “We had to be careful that we did not move the plane too fast, as the aerodynamics of the Wright Flyer would become a factor,” says Warner.

“After they introduced the heroes of aviation, there was a countdown from the guys in orbit in the International Space Station, and then you could hear the sound of an old prop plane starting. Moving lights swept up to illuminate the plane as it came flying in over the audience and landed on the stage,” he continues. “We had to do some 3D CAD modeling to make sure all the lighting, trusses, loudspeakers, and people on stage were out of the flight path. We also had to make sure the sound was authentic. The Smithsonian is an archive museum, and accuracy is their trademark.” A dummy pilot (one of the Wright brothers, presumably) was dressed in period flying clothes to add to the authenticity.

After the plane landed on the stage, the Kabuki drops fell sequentially to reveal the museum. The moving lights used were MAC 2000s, from Atmosphere's inventory. “I lit the Wright Flyer fairly minimally,” says Lyttle. She placed one of the MAC 2000s on each of four 10'-tall upright trusses. “Lights on the overhead truss would have downlit the plane, and the audience would be looking up into the lights,” she explains. “This way, the plane was lit from underneath to make sure it looked three dimensional. Source Fours on the truss added some wash light from above, with more MACs on the truss following it as well.”

Lyttle worked with Andy Horodowicz from Atmosphere to program the MAC 2000s that tracked the plane from point to point along the flight path. The programming was done on a High End Systems Wholehog II console. “It took a lot of programming to get the fixtures to follow the plane as it flew through the room,” says Lyttle. “It was fun to watch the audience duck.

“We had the majority of the museum house lights off to try to darken the end of the room as much as humanly possible during the dedication,” Lyttle notes. “The house lights came up more as the drops fell. The blackout drapes on the windows and the Kabuki drops helped mask the rest of the museum, but we had to keep some lighting on behind the drops. They did have the Vice President there.”

Lyttle's challenge was “to get rid of the ambient light to make the most of the theatrical lighting we could afford. By doing so, the reveal effect was very successful. We needed to make it black enough to surprise people with this plane coming out of the dark.”

Jay Snyder, president of Atmosphere, with LD Robin Lyttle, backstage during the dedication events at Udvar-Hazy Center.


Gala Dinner selected equipment list

24 ETC Source Four PAR
18 26° ETC Source Fours
8 10° ETC Source Fours
10 36° ETC Source Fours
2 19° ETC Source Fours
6 High End Systems Technobeams
5 one-ton CM Lodestar Chain Motors
1 Thomas Truss
9 18” Altman Scoops
120 Pin spots
2 Barco R8 projectors

Dedication Ceremony selected equipment list

94 ETC Source Four Par MFL
26 ETC Source Four Par NSP
27 19° ETC Source Fours
4 10° ETC Source Fours
15 ETC 36° Source Fours
4 Martin Professional MAC 2kW Profile luminaires
12 Martin Professional MAC 2kW wash luminaires
3 Martin Professional MAC 2kW Performance luminaires
1 Thomas Truss
14 one-ton CM Lodestar Chain Motors
6 PAR 64s
6 6' Mini Strips

Production credits

Ron Bracco, senior account executive, Special Events, Hargorve, Inc.

John Aulbach, project manager, Special Events, Hargrove, Inc.

Mike Proska, account manager, Special Events, Hargrove, Inc.

Mitch Clark, production stage manager, Hargrove, Inc.

Mike Sapsis, rigging designer, Sapsis Rigging Inc.

Joe McGeough, president/flying system programmer, Flying by Foy

Robin Lyttle, lighting designer, Lighting By Lyttle

Bill Warner, technical director/production manager, Atmosphere, Inc.

Andrew Horodowicz, programmer for dedication, Atmosphere, Inc.

Steven J. Balazs, programmer for Salute & Gala, Atmosphere, Inc.

Jay Snyder, president, Atmosphere, Inc.

Mark Vilensky, assistant T.D. video operations, C.P.R. MultiMedia Solutions

Jeff Monner, senior account executive, C.P.R, MultiMedia Solutions

Matt Snyder, sound system designer, RCI Sound Systems, Inc.

Billy Martin, A1 audio engineer, RCI Sound Systems, Inc.

David Adcock, A/V specialist, Special Events, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Inst.