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#137 The Wings are on Fire!

Written 8-2015

I think I first became aware of the possibilities of fireworks before I even got into the airshow business.  Art Scholl used to mount fireworks on his Chipmunk and do a night act.  I once saw an old air show poster, showing a wingwalker above a city.  She held highway flares in each hand as the pilot performed aerobatics overhead.  My friend, Steve Oliver, was a great help in advising

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This timelapse photo shows Steve Oliver over Steamboat Springs Colorado. Not only does it show the variety of fireworks Steve carries, but it also shows how nicely he stays “on stage”.

me because he was using fireworks as well.  We helped each other.  I ended up concentrating on Class C fireworks which I could buy at roadside stands around the fourth of July. But I still depended on Class B “fountains” which, as the name implies, spewed a fountain of sparks, leaving a trail which served as the rhythm for the music of my night show.  It was always an adventure.  Mounting fireworks on a fabric covered airplane was fraught with hazard, but I designed the mounts to keep the devices a reasonable distance away from and downwind of the fabric.  Perhaps the biggest problem was misfiring.  Sometimes a device just wouldn’t go off….. when I wanted it to!  But perhaps the biggest hazard was at the end of the act.  In fact, it was right after the landing.  Those fireworks would keep on burning, their fire fanned by the airspeed of the plane.  And when I landed, the burning cardboard casings made it look like my wings were on fire.  I guess they kinda were!

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A frame grab from old video shows my Cub over Amelia Island, Florida. When those wing mounted fireworks quit, there’ll be a mad dash to land back at the airport and roll up to the water hose in order to put out the fire.

My friend, Jerry Groendyke, has an interesting mind and it shows itself in different ways.  But the way in which I think Jerry sometimes demonstrates his brilliance is with his economy of language.  No one will ever refer to Jerry as “loquacious”.  However, in the absence of practice, his ability to communicate and to relate a story is really unmatched.  I happened to hear Jerry telling someone about my night show.  The part of it which fascinated Jerry went something like this:

“So he’s rigged all these brackets.  He’s got fireworks attached to the wingtips of this fabric-covered J-3 Cub.  He’s got a bracket on the tail and he even has this large, streamlined box attached to the belly.  In that aluminum box are all these fireworks which are pointed down.  When he fires them from a control box on the instrument panel they will shoot their fireworks straight down.  If he does that in a loop, the effect is really phenomenal, causing this large arc of explosives and fire, outlining the path of the airplane as it loops.  But all these fireworks are contained in cardboard.  And the airplane’s going through the air at an average speed of about 80 knots.  So all those spent firework tubes are going to be on fire.  And it’s a fire fanned by that airspeed.  So, KNOWING THAT, he has a hose at the corner of a hangar on the airport.  He’s taxied the airplane over to that hangar and he’s designed his landing roll to end at that hose.  Then he turns on the hose and launches off to do his night show over the beach about five miles away.  HE KNOWS THAT THE AIRPLANE WILL BE ON FIRE WHEN HE RETURNS!  But somehow it works.  He swoops in with fire on the wings and belly, shuts the engine down, coasts to a stop and leaps out, grabs the hose and puts the fire out.”

The President of the Amelia Island Plantation in Florida was Jack Healan.  Jack was a long time aviator.  He’d been a Marine during the Viet Nam era.  And he had the distinction of being the only person I’d ever allowed to ride with me during a night show.  With Jack in the back seat of the 100HP Cub, I made all the preparations that Jerry had described and launched off to perform my night show over the beach in front of the Amelia Island Plantation.  The act went pretty well, all the fireworks performed as they should and the extinguishing of the ensuing “wings afire” was successful.  Someone approached Jack as he dismounted from the dripping, steaming Cub.

“How was it, Jack?” they asked.

Jack just exhaled and shook his head.

“It was like f—–g Da Nang!” he exclaimed.

3 comments to #137 The Wings are on Fire!

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