Lowestoft Air Show Fireworks
With Skyscenes Pyrotechnics.
Welcome to my Lowestoft 2002 feature! On the following pages I report on our fantastic two days in August 2002 at the Lowestoft Air Show, as guests of Skyscenes Pyrotechnics.
Myself and UKFR Forum member Pete B were expecting two days of standard firework action. What we actually got was two days of fireworks, pyro, a manic ride on a gunboat on the North Sea, and a ringside view of an air crash. Not your average few days, but for us one of the most exciting events we have covered on UKFR.
Let us first introduce you to the Skyscenes team, our hosts for the two days:
We arrived at the South Pier around noon. It was grey and it was raining. The radio had been announcing which of the planned displays had been cancelled due to the foul weather. The fireworks display by Skyscenes was scheduled for 10:00PM, and the prospect of ten hours on the end of a pier in the North Sea in this weather was not pleasant!
The lads from Skyscenes had already begun to unload the mortar racks when we arrived – setting up takes a long time in the best of conditions, and these weren’t! The rain stopped after a while and the serious business of positioning and securing the mortar tubes began.
The weather improved as the day wore on, the tubes were loaded with shells starting from 3″ upwards. To make sure Pete B didn’t take any more pictures of Simon fusing up the finale rack (something like 40+ golden willow shells fired simultaneously in a huge fan) he asked if he wanted to complete the last 3 or 4 racks of tubes in the fan.
After a quick lesson in splicing quickmatch, Pete B was left to it! Who cares that the Red Arrows were roaring overhead and that he was missing a ringside seat – he was happy getting his hands dirty on the largest single set-piece in the show!
We seemed to be very close to the action in the airshow – The aircraft have to stay at least 400m from the spectators on the beach, which put them pretty much directly overhead for us!
Pete B: “While having a crafty smoke with Steve’s dad over one side of the pier, there was a mighty BOOOM!!!! and cloud of white smoke obscured the other side – made me jump so much I nearly lost me roll-up!!!
“Seems that the others wanted to try out some ground maroons on the water, as Skyscenes were due to provide the pyro for a simulated air-sea battle for the following day and had lobbed one into the harbour to see what the effect would be!
“As the smoke cleared, I could see a lot of activity at the fence holding the public back from our firing site, and there were two or three Police beckoning us over – presumably to explain why we were setting depth charges off in the marina!
“I made out that I had smoke in my eyes and ignored them, and they wandered off after a while!!!!”
Once the shells were all fused and waterproofed, it was time to work on the “opening number” for the show.
A large box of ground maroons appeared (these are like plastic coffee jars filled with flash powder and an electric igniter). They were to be mounted on long stakes and pushed through the drainage holes along the side of the pier. Fired simultaneously they would produce a huge flash/bang along the length of the pier.
As a demonstration, one of the maroons was carefully opened and the flashpowder poured along the top wall of the pier in a long powder train. The igniter was connected and we all retired, cameras at the ready.
Once fired, a brilliant white fireball ran along the top of the wall, along with a huge puff of white smoke. It was so impressive that it was decided to start the show this way! A long powder train of flash would be laid along the top of the pier wall. To start the show it would be lit at each end electrically, causing the two fireballs to race to the middle of the train. As the fireballs met, the line of ground maroons along the pier would be fired and the first shells launched!
Final preparations completed, we wished the lads well, and took our cameras to set up positions about 150m away on a neighbouring jetty to film the show. At 15 minutes, 10 minutes, and 5 minutes before the show was due to start, a single comet-tailed titanium salute shell was fired to bring the spectators down onto the beach.
Showtime! The flashpowder trains worked perfectly! Two blinding white fireballs rolled towards each other along the pier and when they met – WhoooompH! The line of ground maroons lit up the pier, beach and most of the town!
Wave after wave of shells, candle barrages and cakes followed. The brief to Skyscenes had been ‘noisy’ and they didn’t disappoint! The finale, 40+ shells fired within a second, forming a huge hanging cloud of golden glitter which hung in the sky right down to sea level, was perfect (much to Pete B’s relief, having fused part of it up earlier in the day!).
The only grievance was that Pete B’s shutter release cable snapped halfway through the display and in resetting the camera he lost track of how much film he had left and actually ran out before the finale. Never mind – we had a repeat performance due tomorrow.
Long exposure shots by Pete B:
The applause of the crowd on the beach made all the day’s trials worth it. As we lugged the cameras back to the firing site we got some comments from the crowd nearest us, which included “Did you make all those yourselves” (yeah right!), and “What the hell was that blast in the harbour a couple of hours ago?” (referring to the ground maroon!).
Back at ground zero, the lads were already starting to clear up. We were able to give them an instant replay of the whole display thanks to our video footage. As usual with a Cat 4 display, the firers get to see very little of what is going on overhead.
We thanked everyone for putting up with us for the day, and arranged to meet again on the pier for the second display the following day.
What a difference in weather – cloudless skies and hot sun. We had a minor run-in with a jobsworth on the pier who refused to let us drive on until he saw our pass (which we didn’t actually have) – I flashed him a Great Northern Firework catalogue, and he was happy to let us through!
Once on the pier, amongst the debris from last nights show, we could see the the Skyscenes lads were preparing the pyro for the air-sea battle. The aim was to recreate a battle between a Westland Wasp helicopter, and a gunboat (the Defender). To create the impression of a string of explosions leading up to the boat, a long line of about 15 ground maroons would be trailed out behind the boat, and fired electrically in sequence to make a line of waterspouts. Candle packs and cakes on the boat would give the impression of tracer, and an array of smoke pots as the finishing touch!
The day started to get out-of-hand when it was time to get all the pyro (and the two lads from Skyscenes) over to the Defender. We helped carry the boxes of gear down to the jetty to meet an inflatable which was to take everything out to the Defender. While we were waiting for the inflatable to arrive, one of the Defender’s crew gave us a brief history of the service history of the boat.
We were assuming that for the display, we would set the cameras up on the end of the pier and film from there – he had other ideas! Once he realised we would be filming the show, he insisted that we go out on the Defender to get as close to the action as possible! We felt as if we had been press-ganged, but as it was a gloriously sunny day the thought of a boat trip was quite appealing.
Hastily grabbing cameras and lifejackets we boarded the inflatable and gave strict instructions that the driver take it easy out to the boat as the sea was choppy, and we didn’t want any seawater sloshing over the cameras.
The driver completely disregarded this and as we left the harbour and headed for open water he went flat out for the Defender! I seem to recall that at one or two occasions on the ride out, my arse was actually in contact with part of the boat, but for most of the ride I seemed to be completely airborne, whist trying to hang on the back of Pete’s seat and also stopping the video camera sliding into the North Sea with my knees.
A short lifetime later, we arrived at the Defender and after a brief battle with a rope ladder we were onboard!
Skyscenes had the back of the boat to themselves to set up the pyro, and were already setting up when we arrived, although it was soon apparent that Simon was feeling less than 100% and that if he did not get back on dry land soon, he would show us all what he had had for breakfast. Pity was taken on him and after a quick debate it was arranged for Pete B to assist Andy for the display, while Simon headed back to shore with the nutter in the inflatable and I found a handy perch next to the funnel to film from.
Pete B’s job was to feed out the string of ground maroons from the back of Defender – hopefully at the correct marker buoy – then get clear while Andy fired them in sequence, then to dash back in to set off the smoke pots while Andy was busy firing the candle packs and cakes. We rehearsed our cues and movements around the deck a few times til we felt as ready as we would ever be, and waited for the action to begin.
Shortly before we were due to display, the Defender fired up its engines (and I disappeared in a cloud of diesel smoke) and headed a couple of miles offshore so the guns could be tested.
The Defender is equipped with a 75mm laser-guided Bofors gun on the front, a 20mm cannon on the rear deck (which made a great handhold for me as I lurched about), and a brace of gas powered machine guns either side of the bridge.
It was completely surreal to be bobbing around in the sun, on a boat bristling with guns, while the Red Arrows screamed low overhead leaving clouds of coloured smoke on the water while the Defender’s guests and crew blasted away at them with machine guns!
At last! Time for action and we met up with our helicopter adversary and headed for the crowded beaches. Ahead of us the Harrier Jump Jet was finishing his display and performing his traditional bow to the audience while hovering low over the water. The roar of his jet louder even than the rumble of the Defender’s engine as we gathered speed.
On the rear deck, Andy and Pete B were ready. Somewhere around was our flying adversary and we all hoped he was ready!
Suddenly everything changed. On the Defender we heard a tremendous PHUT followed immediately by an uncanny silence.
Looking ahead to the shore we saw a parachute going into the sea and an empty sky! No smoke, no flames, nothing! Had we really just seen a plane crash?
Annoyingly my video camera was not yet running and all I caught was the aftermath and rescue. News came in on the ship-to-shore radio that the Harrier had indeed crashed, and all boat and plane movements were stopped while the emergency services swung into action.
We tried to contact the other members of the Skyscenes team by mobile phone to ask what was happening on shore and the pier, but all networks were busy. When we did eventually get through and asked what had happened we got the dour answer “We think he flooded the engine!”.
From the harbourmaster came news that the pilot was OK (save a broken ankle) but that the plane was leaking aviation fuel on the water in the area we were due to display, and so the air/sea battle was cancelled.
All the pyro effects had to be made safe and dismantled, then boxed up in readiness for return to land. This done, there was nothing else we could do while the ban on boat movements was in place, apart from bask on deck in the afternoon sun.
The Defender kindly supplied some much-needed cold beers and we sat and watched the Harrier pilot complete his adventures by being winched from the lifeboat to a rescue helicopter and flown off to hospital.
Eventually we made it back to harbour after another hairy inflatable ride – this time I had even less to hold on to, as our inflatable had been involved in the rescue and had actually been hit by the Lowestoft lifeboat while rescuing the pilot, and this had torn off the rope handholds down the side of the inflatable!
Back on the pier we found the Skyscenes crew dismantling the planned fireworks show that evening. With much talk of aircraft fuel still in the harbour, and the sense of shock still very palpable among the witnesses along the shore it was reluctantly decided to cancel the show. Some hasty negotiations with the airshow organisers and the town council confirmed that Skyscenes would still be paid for their time and effort, and that the fireworks show would merely be postponed for a week, and would be fired the following weekend as part of the towns carnival celebrations.
I’d like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to Skyscenes for the insight into the ups and downs of a professional display team. Surely a weekend which demonstrated that no matter how much time and preparation goes into a show, there are some things which you cannot plan for (such as a few tons of jet fighter crashing in your display zone)! Thanks also to all on the Defender for allowing us to get close to the action at all times. All in all, an outstanding weekend of pyrotechnic adventures, which we both feel privileged to have been a part of.