Boeing Frontiers
July 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 03 
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Hooked on pyrotechnics

Lifelong passion for splendor of fireworks sparks Commercial Airplanes couple to ignite a grand hobby


Greg RayGeorge Plimpton's book, Fireworks: A History and Celebration, was the launching pad for Greg Ray's fireworks hobby. The book, which some call the ultimate source on pyrotechnics, led this lifelong fireworks lover to take action.

"I wrote to the Pyrotechnics Guild International, which was listed in Plimpton's book, and started getting literature," said Ray, who is a Commercial Airplanes process analyst based in Renton, Wash. "But the turning point was attending PGI's convention in Idaho Falls, Idaho. When the organization held its annual convention there, I told my wife, Vicki, 'This is as close as it's ever going to be to the west coast, and we should go.'

"We've been hooked ever since," Ray said.

In the dozen years since reading Plimpton's book and becoming involved with the pyrotechnics organization, Greg Ray has become a head pyro, the person who stages and directs fireworks displays.

This year Greg and Vicki, a Commercial Airplanes communications specialist, are part of the crew that produces the Fourth of July fireworks display on Vashon Island's Quartermaster Harbor in Washington state.

According to Greg, setup for the fireworks show takes eight to ten people two to three days. "It's hard work and you won't be rich doing this, but it's a lot of fun," he said.

In Washington, certification requires working as an assistant on at least six shows, receiving recommendations from at least two certified pyrotechnicians and passing a written exam.

"Greg manages the whole production," Vicki said. "We are hired by companies that take care of the paperwork and choreograph the show." As the head pyro, her husband then hires the crew, sets up the show and cleans up afterward. "Since the work is so hard, very few people do it more than once," she said.

Here's how Greg says it works for the Vashon Island fireworks show:

Into four boxes, each four feet by forty feet, Greg and his crew install mortars. The boxes are filled with sand.

Once the mortars are in place they are filled with shells, the projectiles that create the stunning sights and sounds that cause crowds to "Ooh" and "Ahh."

"We follow a cue sheet that provides the order to install the mortars and tells which shells need to be inserted," he said.

The shells come in a variety of sizes.

For the Vashon Island show, the shells are as small as 2 1/2 inches in diameter or as mammoth as 16 inches in diameter, the same size as the guns on the battleship USS Missouri (a basketball, by contrast, is 10 inches in diameter). A typical fireworks display could have up to 1,000 mortars and shells of various sizes.

In addition to the boxes, some shows use stands that are loaded with mortars and shells. The stands can hold up to 10 mortars.

While Greg remembers using a red flare to ignite fireworks at his first fireworks job at Black Lake in Olympia, Wash., "The shows we do now are much larger and more sophisticated," he said. "The shells have an 'electric match.'" An electric match has wires that come out of the shell and hook to a terminal strip.

During the show, Vicki sits at a control panel and fires the shells according to a script.

"Typically, our shows are choreographed to music, and I listen to a (compact disk) that has music on one channel and the firing cues on the other," Vicki said. "A synthesized voice tells me what shells to fire and when."

"The shooter hears, 'Fire one, Fire two,' and so on. This person doesn't really get to see the show," Greg added.

As the head pyro, Greg, on the other hand, watches over everything. "I check the weather and wind speed, and if anything serious happens, I can stop the show."

Thankfully, he's never had to.

A major element of producing a show is the cleanup. "We put foil over everything to keep the moisture—most often rain— and sparks out," he said. And since what goes up must come down, the crew often is faced with a significant cleanup. "There are pieces of foil everywhere," he added. "While most of the waste is biodegradable, our goal is to leave the site cleaner than we found it."

Greg stresses safety when dealing with fireworks—on both a large and small scale.

"My dad taught me as a kid to be very careful around fireworks," he said, "and over the years I've taken that advice very seriously."


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