World Record Rocket Launch Attempt (2006)
Fantastic Fireworks launch over 55,000 rockets at once!
Feature reboot: This article was originally published in 2006. In early 2022 I found the original Mini-DV tape in my loft. With thanks to a tape digitising service I have republished the footage on to YouTube which you can view below. The original feature writer, Justin Petty, has also kindly supplied the original photos which have been republished in higher resolution here.
Write-up by Justin Petty: The attempt to break the Guinness world record for the greatest number of firework rockets launched simultaneously (then standing at 39,210) was held on 16th August 2006 at the Plymouth Fireworks Championships. The record attempt was conceived by Professor Roy Lowry of the University of Plymouth, with the rockets being donated by Black Cat Fireworks and the launch expertise provided by Luton-based Fantastic Fireworks.
To beat the current record all the rockets had to be launched within a 5 second window. With over 55,000 rockets needing to be set up a way had to be found to hold them all, yet allow an almost simultaneous launch. To achieve this some small scale tests were carried out, with the final design consisting of 15 plywood frames, with each frame designed to hold several thousand rockets. Within each frame were two layers of chicken wire, with a smaller mesh used on the upper layer to hold the rockets in place and a larger mesh on the lower layer which was intended to keep the rockets vertical.
The rockets themselves arrived on site in large cartons. Under the terms of the record attempt the rockets had to be consumer rockets, with no modification of fuses allowed. Each rocket had previously been painstakingly removed from a multi-pack and the tissue surrounding the Chinese green fuses removed. This preparation had already taken a small team several weeks to complete!
To light the rockets simultaneously, lengths of quick match with notches cut out every few inches were first laid across the upper layer of chicken wire. On top of these were laid hundreds of lengths of Spanish black match in a criss-cross pattern. As each rocket was inserted into the mesh its green fuse was bent at right angles to allow contact with a piece of match.
A small army of volunteers was on site to help with loading the huge number of rockets. As the process of loading continued it became apparent that there wasn’t going to be enough room in the 15 frames to hold them all. An improvised additional launching platform was rapidly deployed consisting of a panel of Heras fencing with doubled chicken wire resting on pallets. With all the rockets in place it only left the official counters to move in and work out exactly how many rockets were loaded and ready to go!
Under the World Record rules each rocket had to be individually counted twice by independent counters to ensure the declared number being launched was correct. Each frame was first divided into nine squares with string, and then each rocket within each square counted and marked with a pen by one of the counters, observed by their partner, until all rockets within a square were marked. The second counter then repeated the exercise, putting a second mark on each rocket, with the first counter observing. It was soon evident that this approach was going to take longer than the time available before the scheduled launch so plan B was put into action. This involved both counters working together and counting as one of them marked the rockets and then checking that their individual totals tallied for each square.
At the end of counting the official number of rockets that had been loaded was 56,649. Phew!
With e-matches wired in to remotely set the rockets off, the crew retreated to a safe distance. At just after 9:30pm, Professor Lowry pushed the button. An initial wave of rockets rose, as pictured in the launch photo below, then a second much larger wave burst forth which prompted the majority of the crew to drop to the ground whilst rocket sticks rained down everywhere! Within seconds all that was left was a bonfire as every frame had burst into flames under the intense heat generated by the launch. Later analysis concluded that the first wave was from the Heras panel, followed by a much larger wave from the frames which were more tightly packed in.
Only four rockets were found unfired afterwards and a new World Record of 56,645 rockets launched in 30 seconds was later ratified, partly on the grounds that as the rockets were consumer rockets they would not normally be expected to launch within 5 seconds of being lit.
Now, there are rumours that there is to be an attempt to launch 120,000 rockets to set a new record at the end of August 2008. If it happens your reporter will be there, so watch this space…
Write-up by Pyro Pete: Before we get to my footage, check out this photo from Justin, taken at ground-zero as the rockets first exploded into a huge cloud of screeching glitter!
Here is my footage, taken from nearly half a kilometre away as the crow flies:
A huge thank you to Justin Petty for not only agreeing to my republishing his original write-up and photos, but also for supplying higher resolution images too so the whole feature can be updated.
Please respect copyright: Photos as noted are copyright Justin Petty. Video footage of the rockets is copyright UKFR.