Night Air Shows and Pyro: The Voices of Experience

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Night shows probably started in the 1920s with lighted railroad flares on fabric airplanes. That probably didn’t last too long. Then, Art Scholl introduced the modern night display at the Calgary Stampede in 1974. And, in 1989, Gene Soucy and Steve Oliver reintroduced them more or less as they are today with pyro all over the airplanes. Since then, different people have created a variety of night shows with and without pyrotechnics.

With the night pyro show, the most important thing is safety. It has a higher floor, 500 feet, and higher weather minimums, five miles visibility and a 2,500 foot ceiling.

Steve Oliver

For a while, Gene and Cheryl Littlefield did their wing walking act at night with no pyro, just with lights all over the airplane shining on her. Bill Leff, who is kind of an electronics guy, uses a lot of spotlights and has his pyro fired from a remote control box on the ground.

My Chipmunk carries fountains, also called gerbs, which are what stream out the long trails of sparklers and fire that come off the wingtips. I also carry custom-built, 8 shot 30-mm Roman candles that shoot out colored balls. I encase them in steel tubes and have a big titanium plate that goes on the wingtip before the mounts go on. The titanium gets discolored from the extreme heat, but it protects the wingtips. I’ve never had an issue with this, but — on a rare occasion — fireworks can go high order. That means, they explode all at once, make noise and shake the airplane, then they shoot out fire balls.

So, you do have to be careful not to fly below the 500 foot night floor for aerobatics because a fire ball could set a field or something else on fire. That has happened to some people.

Your sink rate is incredible with all that drag out there. I mean, the Chipmunk comes out of the sky when you pull the power off. Its frontal area, with all this [stuff] on, is probably six square feet per wing. You can’t do near the maneuvers with all that hanging on the wings, so a night show routine is pretty much limited to loops, rolls, Cuban 8s and kind of a hammerhead.

One of the biggest considerations on the Chipmunk is how much glass you’ve got around you. You can’t fly with the canopy off so the reflection from the fountains is incredible. You have got to have some lights on the ground for reference. We have them turn the runway lights up all the way. But sometimes you do a remote show like the one we did at the officers’ club at the Pax River Naval Test Pilot School, which is out on a spit of land that goes out into the ocean. That means there are 180 degrees with no horizon, just black water. As long as you can turn toward the lights of the base, you are okay, but often you have to turn away, to avoid flying over the crowd. So you start a 180 going away, then turn back and you look over your left shoulder until the lights go out of sight, then look right, real quick. For a couple seconds, there is nothing. Then you pick up the lights as you complete the turn.

Bob Carlton

I get calls all the time about adding smoke or pyro to airplanes and the first line of my answer is always: ‘Realize you are attaching explosives to your aircraft that can destroy your aircraft or kill someone else.’ That is the first thing you have to understand. I don’t care how small they are, or if they are just smoke. I have seen the results of a smoke canister blowing up and taking off a substantial portion of a wingtip. That is the first thing.

The second is that electrons are slippery little devils. They will find ways to get to the ignition device of your pyrotechnics, that you never dreamed of. There is no perfect system. If you just run wire from your light switch out to your wingtip, and then a wire to ground your pyrotechnics, you’ve got a 30% chance that something is going to go off when you don’t want it to. And, if you don’t really, really, really understand doing electrical systems that ignite pyrotechnics, then you should not be doing this.

There are numerous examples of stuff going off while on the ground. Everybody has had it happen. I even had it happen. Granted, in my case, it was absolute stupidity on my part.

I’ve got a system that is optically isolated against static, so that there is actually no electrical signal that goes from the timing side of my computer to the firing side. The signal goes through the light and then gets picked up as a light signal by the other side, then that turns on a switch that allows it to fire. That is designed so I can send a static shock through the computer that would destroy the computer and it still won’t fire the pyro.

This is particularly important because, on a windy day, a fiberglass airplane picks up so much static electricity that –when you walk up and touch it– it will knock your shoes off. I live in the dry, dusty Southwest and –on a cold, dry day, when it’s really windy and there’s a lot of dust– you’ve got millions and millions of volts on an airplane just sitting on the ground. So I had a really good electronics guy build my computer with this in mind.

The first thing it does when you turn on the computer is look for voltage on the firing circuit. If it sees any voltage there, the computer will not turn on. I get an error message with the lights flashing.

Once I was at a show and I ran a quick test on everything and got this lockup message. So I spent a whole day trying to figure it out and I never did. So when it was time to do the show I said, “All I can do is to put the pyro on and push out to a safe place by the runway and I’m going to hook it up and I’m going to turn on the switches and see what happens.” I turned on the computer and it went into lockup. Then I flipped the switch about eight times, fast.

It was a stupid thing to do. The computer was telling me that I had a problem, but I was desperate. Then I had one device go off on the ground. The computer had done everything that I had designed it to do and, stupid me, I kept messing with it until I defeated my own system. Then I got this feeling, Oh my gosh! How stupid was that? So I turned everything off, got out of the plane, disconnected the wingtips and pushed it back in the hangar.

As it turns out, the problem was these little black, plastic terminal strips with screws and a whole bunch of wires. Every plane has these, somewhere, and because I run the smoke canisters on the wingtips and there are some metallic elements to the smoke, that plastic had absorbed enough metallic smoke so that the plastic became a conductor. Even washing them didn’t help.

At first, I thought that maybe I had residue on them, so I scrubbed them with a toothbrush and still they had enough conductivity from the powder burned into that plastic that they became a conductor. It was like two volts out of 28. That is the sort of thing you have to be aware of when you are doing pyro; little things like plastic parts become conductors under certain conditions. There are so many ways electrons can find their way to your pyro when you don’t want them to.

The other thing that most people don’t realize is that, when you are transporting this stuff, there are some pretty strict rules on owning and transporting it, depending on what type of materials you have. You will get into trouble if you don’t know these rules.

There are three or four entities that control pyrotechnics shipping. Obviously; ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms); they control storage and ownership. DOT (Department of Transportation) controls transportation and UN (United Nations) controls the classification. They are all interrelated. So you will have an ATF regulation that specifies certain exemptions by a UN number. ATF only recognizes two things: high explosive and low explosive. But there are certain things that have certain rules that are regulated by their UN number. There are certain areas where DOT and UN regulations cross, so you have to know all three of those things. You have to know which set of qualifications they are talking about.

You find this out by going to the ATF website and downloading their book. You go to DOT and download their book. And, luckily, the DOT has all the UN stuff in it. The DOT book is about 600 pages and you’d better know it all, because — if you get stopped — interstate commerce with hazardous materials without the right stuff is pretty serious.

The first time I did a night show, it was in my Skybolt. It had pyro and strobe lights between two white wings. It was insane. Luckily, I am not susceptible to flicker vertigo. It made all kinds of patterns. I was blind as a bat when I landed. The trick is that you need to have a lighted runway under you as your primary reference. It is the only reference you can count on always being there. Usually, there is a horizon of some sort, but that runway is really your lifeline and you should be familiar enough with your aircraft so you can do your entire routine with your eyes closed. If you can’t go up and put a safety pilot on board and do half your routine without opening your eyes and come out reasonably close to where you thought you were, you have the wrong aircraft for doing a night show. If you’ve got a new airplane and are not comfortable in it, then don’t do night pyro in it.

The big issues are just airspeed and altitude. Those are the only two things that matter. And airspeed is not as obvious at night as it is during the day. Your airspeed indicator needs to be in your scan a lot more than in the day. And then there is the weather. The good news is that the weather is usually a little nicer than during the day. You are limited to 500 foot altitude by the rules. So you are not flying down in the weeds.

On choreography: no one can see your airplane. So, if you are pushing six negative Gs at night, you are just being an idiot. I do a thing where I just go out and wing waggle back and forth, just left and right turns, 45 degrees and I’ll have people say, “Man you did that tumbling thing!” They suppose the plane is going end over end, because there are all these optical illusions from the pyro crossing and stuff. The audience doesn’t know what the heck you are doing up there. So keep it simple and low G and, again, the kind of stuff you could do with your eyes closed.

But the most dangerous part of flying at night is taxiing on an air show airport in the dark. I am so much more scared taxiing in than I am when I am airborne because the lights are turned off and sometimes runways are closed, barriers are up in places you don’t expect them and, unlike during the day show, things are not as well defined. Sometimes, the night show line is different from the day show line. They’ll have you fly in a whole different place because you are doing it for the sponsor party or something. So, if you haven’t flown the line during the day, at least try to get up and make a few passes along whatever line you are going to fly at night.

Bill Leff

It is really difficult to do the night show without a ground crew. I have to have somebody on the ground to work the lights and everything is a lot easier with a ground crew. There is all this detail work for the night show. You have to spend hours loading and securing the fireworks. It used to take me eight hours, but now three of us can do it in about two or three hours. I’ve made innovations to simplify it. Once things are wired, it goes through a fire control system that was designed by an actual fire control guy that did Defense Department stuff. It hooks up the connectors and sequences them and protects them so they won’t inadvertently fire. I’ve never had an incident on the ground because of this system. And there is a firewall at the wingtip.

The whole unit comes off with four bolts and three connectors. So I can load it up, take it off and sit it on the ground, go fly a day show, land, four bolts and three connectors and I’m ready to do a night show. 

Eddie Andreini

I used to carry a big load of pyrotechnics on the airplane, about 35 pounds on each wing. There are three separate packs on each wing and a separate ignition for each one. But I had a problem with one of them at a show in Australia. For some reason, one wire broke loose or something, and one of the 20 millimeter packs didn’t ignite. The first one went off. Then I fired the second element. And, on the right wing, it goes off, but, on the left wing, it didn’t. When that was completed, I fired the third one. They went off on both sides.

While you are flying, one pack won’t ignite the other one because you have the airstream going through there. But these things are made out of cardboard and — when you land — sometimes they’ll start burning. So when you land you’ve got to stay into the wind and somebody will just run out and douse the pack for you so it doesn’t start igniting the ones that haven’t already ignited.

So, I landed into the wind, and they wanted me to turn around and back taxi on the runway. I told them that I needed water and I was taxiing into the wind real slowly and that I was going to have to wait to back taxi. Three times, I said I needed water, but the guy didn’t respond. I didn’t want to get into a confrontation, so I decided to turn around and go as fast as I could. And, in the meantime, maybe I could keep enough airflow going so it wouldn’t ignite the pack that hadn’t ignited. Well, sure enough, as soon as I turned to taxi, I had a big fire on the wingtip.

Normally, I have somebody run out with a big bottle or bucket of water to douse the package. But the guys had not caught up with me in the car. And, the next thing you know, these 20 millimeters are firing back and hitting the ground and rolling. And then there was a grass fire going. So the air boss says, “You need water?” I said, “Yeah.” Then here comes the fire truck and douses it. That was the end of it.

Pyro ashes are the stuff that is still burning. You’ve got to be careful. Most of the fireworks on the wings are packed in hard cardboard and that stuff will start to burn. Then also, some of the embers from the pyrotechnics have repors (gerbs) on them that go out and explode again. They fire out a ball that is going to ignite again in two or three seconds. Then sometimes you see the ashes coming down, like they do with fireworks. Pretty soon they disappear and you think they have gone out, but some of them are still hot. When they touch the ground, they can start a grass fire if they don’t have time to totally extinguish. So be sure to stay high enough.

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Deb Gary
Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.