CEO Spotlight: Jan Luth

Story by MeLinda Schnyder - Photography by Madison Ham

Editor’s Note: CEO Spotlight is a recurring monthly feature on CEOs, presidents, leaders and business owners in the Wichita area.

    Wichita aircraft manufacturers get frequent inquiries from groups and individuals hoping for a tour of the assembly lines, engineering facilities and the finished airplanes produced in the Air Capital of the World. None offer public tours, but starting late this year a new $2 million exhibit at Exploration Place will pull back the curtain on Wichita’s aviation industry.
    “Design Build Fly” is a new permanent exhibit that will take the space currently occupied by “Exploring Flight and Design.” It’s the most extensive renovation since the interactive science center opened 17 years ago and taps into aerospace experts and resources in Wichita, known as the Air Capital of the World for its innovation and manufacturing aptitude in the aviation industry.
    Presenting sponsor is Spirit AeroSystems, though all major aircraft manufacturers and many local aviation suppliers are supporting the exhibit through expertise, financial and in-kind donations. 
    Elements in the exhibit will be brand neutral, said Jan Luth, president of Exploration Place, so it feels like it’s for the entire community.
    Luth and her staff formed an exhibit advisory committee to bring together CEOs of local aircraft manufacturing companies and leaders at the National Center For Aviation Training (NCAT), National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and the Wichita State University College of Engineering.
    “We asked them ‘What do you need this exhibit to be so that it supports what you are trying to do in our community?’” Luth said. “If you’re an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) or you’re a college of engineering, your audience is not the family. At Exploration Place the family is our audience. So we wanted to find out what we could do with the exhibit to keep this industry strong in our community. The real answer is workforce development: How do we spark excitement in young people for the next generation of aviation professionals?”
    The 5,100-square-foot gallery will have 45 to 50 interactives meant to create that spark. For example, in the section devoted to the engineering process visitors will be able to build a propeller, design a seat or test landing gear. In the section demonstrating manufacturing processes, visitors can apply the paint and striping on an airplane’s exterior or hone their precision with a rivet gun on the wing of a private jet. The flying section will let visitors sit in a cockpit as a production test pilot working out an in-flight issue or fly an unmanned aerial vehicle. A slice of a 737 fuselage is being transformed into a 10-seat theater that will show behind-the-scenes footage from local plants.
    Luth expects “Design Build Fly” to be popular with all ages, including adults who want to learn more about what their mothers, brothers or spouses do at work.
    “This is going to be a lot more high-tech than many other exhibits we have at Exploration Place and we believe it’s going to skew a little bit older,” she said. “Young children will still enjoy it but there will be more for older kids and adults to enjoy as well.”
    Exploration Place hired Ohio-based design firm Roto to create open-ended interactive experiences so that visitors can have a new experience each time they visit the exhibit. Fifteen new educational programs will complement the exhibit, from programs in the family-friendly makerspace to classroom-type programs that can be done on-site or at a school.
    “When ‘Design Build Fly’ is complete, every gallery in Exploration Place will either be new or have had a major renovation since we opened in 2000,” Luth said.
    “Design Build Fly” is scheduled to open to the public on Saturday, Dec. 2, and it is included with regular admission. Admission ranges from $6 to $9.50 and annual memberships start at $20. There will be special preview nights for members, donors and other groups starting in November.

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    Luth is hoping the “amazing expertise” that helped Exploration Place conceptualize “Design Build Fly” will continue once it opens.     
    “Nothing makes an exhibit come to life more than great volunteers,” she said. “The people-to-people interaction can add another dimension of authenticity. We’re really hoping in a community like ours that retirees, shift workers and anyone with a passion for aviation will say they’d like to come in for one afternoon a week or two mornings a month and volunteer at the exhibit.”
    More information on volunteering at Exploration Place and a volunteer application is available at
    Additionally, Luth said the fundraising campaign for the exhibit is still taking donations. A “Design Build Fly” resources committee helped raise the $2 million needed to build the exhibit and is now raising $500,000 to be used for upgrades and updates over the next decade. Donors can pledge any amount and those who commit to $1,000 or more can have their names included on a donor tower in the exhibit.