Brilliant sunshine washes the promenade under hot air balloons as they loft patrons into the air…children cry with delight as they whirl through tree-filtered sun in bi-planes…lavender moonlight glints off the corrugated steel of the mission briefing hut prior to a bombing run over Germany…shafted sun, holding promise of storm, strikes the bridge house and deck when you climb out of your F-18…eerie colors gleam from the edges of the worlds' highest flying spy plane at the boundary of space… here, starlight gently twinkles while you wait for lift off to the International Space Station. All these scenes seemingly jump to life at the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum in Kalamazoo, MI.
The AirZoo, as it is known, is not a typical stay-behind-the-velvet-ropes museum; it features historic displays mixed with themed attractions. The owner wanted lighting that would dramatically impact the patron, so LD Bill Hunter of Hunter-Leet & Associates developed the concept, designed the lighting, as well as designed and installed the systems that would make all of the diverse elements airborne. The 92,000 sq. ft. exhibit hall houses two full size carnival rides, a WWII Quonset hut containing a 60-seat “4D” theatre, a two-thirds size replica of an aircraft carrier superstructure, four fighter simulators on the carrier deck, a shuttle mission simulator, and historic aircraft on the floor and suspended in the air. Surrounding all this is the worlds' largest mural depicting the history of flight.
The most daunting task was lighting the mural (a Guinness Book world record holder, by the way). Hunter wanted to tailor intensity and color fairly precisely for artist Rick Herter's creation. “Its sheer size precluded tungsten as a source because of building heat load and immense power consumption,” Hunter says. “The answer was CMY fixtures tapped for 208V. I was able to use a mere 240A to wash the entire 32' high × 900' long artwork with color mixing and intensity control over each fixture.”
The entire lighting system had to be as flexible as possible because only the rides and simulators had planned permanent locations; aircraft placement was not planned to take place until a week before ribbon cutting ceremonies.
“Conventional theatrical distribution wasn't practical — my hanging positions were 200' long, and the cost of the pipe and wire involved would have been astronomical,” Hunter explains. “Distributing three-phase power, DMX, and portable dimmers throughout the roof truss kept cost considerations manageable while maximizing flexibility.”
The AirZoo has been a popular success among old and young alike, and Hunter credits the museum's executive director, Bob Ellis, with going the extra step to ensure that the lighting was top notch. “He really went out on a limb for the lighting in this project,” he says. “He understood the intrinsic value and impact it would have for the public when even the architect was pushing for cheaper alternatives.”