Over Easter 2018 the Global Stars performed formation displays and solo gyroscopic shows over the 5 day period then when dusk came took to the skies again for the pyro show.
The team is the first and only 4 ship fully aerobatic pyro team in the World. Others will follow quite quickly no doubt!
The article below is published by Pilot magazine written and photographed by Keith Wilson. Full article in PDF
Chinese city Zhengzhou hosts the world’s largest gathering of pyrotechnic formation display teams
Words and pictures: Keith Wilson
Fireworks were originally invented in medieval China during the Tang Dynasty in the 9th Century; primarily designed to scare away evil spirits. Fireworks were a natural development of gunpowder; which itself became known as one of four great Chinese inventions celebrated in Chinese culture. Their historical significance as symbols of ancient China’s advanced science and technologies along with the invention of the compass, papermaking and printing is still fondly remembered.
In China, the art and science of firework making has been developed into an independent profession where pyrotechnicians were respected for their knowledge in mounting grand firework displays.
Earlier this year, a large air show was held at Shangjie Airport, Zhengzhou (ZHSJ), located in the Henan province of China. The flying display programme lasted throughout the day but each evening it featured what became the largest-ever gathering of pyrotechnic formation air display teams from all over the world. With China’s long history of fireworks, it was a little bit like taking coals to Newcastle!
A growth industry
With a slight softening of their normally intense internal bureaucracy from the country’s aviation governance, the Chinese air show scene is slowly developing – clearly backed by local government organisations and a national TV network that supports the large events with live broadcasting across their massive networks.
At Zhengzhou, the show was mainly conducted under UK CAA rules and regulations and ‘run’ by two UK CAA-approved airshow directors – Mike Wood and Roger Steele – although the event was ‘overseen’ by a Chinese official in the control tower who on occasions had the last word.
The Earthrounders is a group of pilots with a unique achievement in common – they have flown themselves around the globe in a light aircraft with a maximum tow of 15,500lbs (7,000kg). The only way to join the organisation is to fly yourself around the world in a light aircraft!
This unique ‘Club’ meets every two years on their 10th Earthrounders Meeting was held in Zhengshou to coincide with the Zhengzhou Air Show. Sadly, despite having battled through the red tape involved with circumnavigating the globe, only one Earthrounder managed to actually fly his aircraft into China for the air show when Slovenian Matevz Lenarcic – a three-time Earthrounder – arrived in his Aerospool WT-9 Dynamic F-JAKG. He received the traditional water cannon welcome as he taxied onto the ramp, where his aircraft remained on display for the duration of the event. Many other Earthrounder members arrived at the event but all chose commercial aviation as the easiest entry method into China.
The static display
This years’ event featured a much larger static display than previously and featured pretty much everything from large bizjets right through to Chinese designed and manufactured microlights and helicopters. Included in the display were two interesting types used by the Chinese Meteorological Service in ‘sampling’ operations – the Xian MA-60 and Harbin Yunshuji-12. The largest aircraft on static display was a Deer Jet Boeing 737-700 BBJ but other aircraft in this category included a Citation Excel, Lear Jet 60XR and a US-registered HA-420 Hondajet.
Helicopters included a selection of Robinson R-22 and R-44s alongside a Rotorway Exec and some interesting indigenous designs from Changzhou Zhonglian Aircraft including the minimalistic single-seat, Rotax 582 or 912-powered F-17 and the F-27, a two-seat R-22 lookalike powered by a Subaru EJ-25 engine.
The autogyro population was extensive, with most of the designs present being manufactured locally by the Sun Hawk (Henan) Aviation Industry Company who clearly offered an interesting range of gyro products as well as a range of military-application drones. Their basic open-cockpit, tandem, two-seat autogyro design is the Hawk CC although the ingenious CY-Hawk version is the world’s first unmanned UAV autogyro. They also offered other drones in the shape of the Hawkeye, a four-rotor VTOL UAV and the XY-320, the world’s first four-rotor manned UAV.
The general aviation selection consisted mainly of US-manufactured designs including the Piper M600, along with the European-manufactured TBM700. They were supplemented by the locally-registered Mooney Ovation which is assembled on site at Zhengzhou.
The lighter end of the GA market saw a variety of imported designs, many of which are either manufactured or assembled in China. These included the Pipistrel Virus, Jabiru J-160, Tecnam P2002H and Diamond DA20. Local designs included the SunWard SA60L – an attractive two-seat LSA; the slightly ancient-looking four-seat, Rotax 914-powered Shenyang Light Aircraft Company Petrel 650C; and perhaps one of the most interesting was the Ruixiang RX1E, the first Chinese designed and manufactured electric-powered, two seat aircraft which bore a remarkable resemblance to the Pipistrel Virus design!
Not to be outdone, the local parachute training organisation (ASFC) was well represented, with numerous examples of the Shijiazhuang Y-5 (Chinese-manufactured An-2) alongside Gippsland Airvans, Quest Kodiak 100s and Cessna Caravans exhibited at various locations around the static display.
The flying programme
The flying programme consisted of a number of international performers including the six-ship Weico Yak Display Team; the four-ship Global Stars; and the two-ship Aero Sparx team from the UK. From Italy came the four-ship Pioneers and from Lithuania the three-ship Presidential Team ‘ANBO’.
The Flying Circus Stearman two-ship display team provided their usual excellent formation wing walking display although they looked somewhat strange in their plain white colour scheme since the end of their sponsorship with Breitling. Wayne Mansfield in his US-registered Aviat Husky provided the banner towing for the event while Viper Airshows’ Jason Newbury provided a spectacular solo performance in a Pitts S-2S and also brought a rocket car to the show, driven by Landon Rios. The plan was to have a drag race against the Pitts with the jet car, powered by a J-35 engine producing 3,000lb of thrust dry and 7,000lb with an afterburner, normally fitted to the F-5.
The statistics for this car are frightening! It can burn a gallon of fuel per second in full burner. Due to body and tyre limitations the top speed is 350mph (585kph). Although the car can accelerate to its top speed in just six seconds generating 6g. Stopping is just a fast, which it can achieve in around seven seconds with braking parachutes, creating 7g in the process! The car has been built with safety in mind, with many safety protocols similar to aviation requirements. The car has fuel shut off valves (manual and electric) with on-board fire suppression, secondary parachutes and battery master shut off. Landon wears a full fire suit that can sustain direct fire contact and keep him safe. Somewhat interestingly, the jet fuel used in China was so clean it would not provide the smoke normally seen from the car so diesel had to be added to generate the white smoke.
Sadly, after a couple of practice demonstration runs, including a minor fuel leak and large flames streaking from the car, the local Chinese officials felt the dry conditions presented too great a fire risk for the car to run, especially at night. So sad as its performance was quite spectacular during the practice runs!
Also scheduled to appear was the spectacular Starjammer aircraft, N49EW, flown by Elgin Wells. Based loosely on an Edge 540 this one-off experimental design featured more than 250 super-bright LEDs along with 4,000 watt amplifier and onboard loudspeakers and promised a unique night time show, especially with a series of cleverly mounted LEDs in the propeller providing a series of coloured arcs. Sadly, Elgin Wells was killed when he crashed during his very first practice. Later in the week, the Global Stars performed a missing-man formation as a tribute to the performer.
Each item performed twice daily; once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Participation by a number of Chinese display items took place every lunchtime and featured a formation setpiece by three Sun Hawk CC autogyros, the electric-powered Ruixiang RX1E and a two-ship formation sequence by a pair of SunWard SA60L aircraft.
Sky writing versus Sky Typing
Ancient and modern methods of sky writing were demonstrated at Zhengzhou during the flying display. Firstly, Wayne Mansfield flew the Aviat Husky and from around 7,500-feet demonstrated the ‘old school’ method with a single aircraft and single smoke system. With so many years of experience at this difficult aviation skill, and despite stronger than comfortable winds, poor visibility due to haze and sky writing Chinese symbols, Wayne was cleverly able to recreate the letters spelling out the message “Every day happy”.
By way of a comparison, Jez Hopkinson led a five-aircraft formation from the Yak Display Team demonstrating the more recent art of “Sky Typing” at 7,500-feet overhead the airshow. With a Yak-52 in the centre of the line abreast formation and flanked by two Yak-50s on either side, an operator in the rear seat of the Yak-52 controls the output of smoke using an I-Pad sending the signals to the remaining four aircraft by wifi. The output is a clever series of words created in what appears to be a dot matrix style of smoke output – in this case it was spelling “Zhengzhou 2018”.
Whichever method you prefer, the results of both were very popular with the large audience who broke out into spontaneous applause as the words were created in the sky high above them.
The pyrotechnic display teams also flew each evening, meaning three display slots per day! Once again, the night time show was operated under CAA Regulations so most teams actually flew during dusk, ensuring they were back on the ground by official night time – often timing it to the very last minute! Only the AeroSparx team, who are approved for a night time pyrotechnic display were able to legally fly after dusk and usually closed each evenings’ flying display programme. Even the locally-based parachutists displayed with pyrotechnics being released from around their feet just before each evenings show!
Locally manufactured pyrotechnics were used throughout the event and it was interesting to seeing the preparation required to prepare and mount the pyrotechnics ready for use. Different teams used different methods but for the sheer weight of pyrotechnics carried, the AeroSparx pair of Grob G109B motor gliders took the prize for carrying the largest quantity. Large quantities were mounted on each wing tip, with both rearward and forward-firing pyros used, more rearward firing pyros were positioned on each undercarriage ler while further rearward firing pyros were mounted on various positions along the long rear wing. The pyros were supplemented by the use of smoke as well as by computer-controlled multi-coloured LED lightning along the fuselage. All in all, the AeroSparx team of Guy Werstgate and Rob Barsby presented a beautifully choreographed and elegant show, providing a fitting finale to each evenings’ programme.
Once the Chinese hang gliders with pyrotechnics around their boots had opened the evenings’ proceedings, the Pioneers were usually next up. Performing their own unique brand of formation flying, they completed their programme with a pyrotechnic finale, using wingtip mounted candles and a burst of forward firing flares to great effect.
Next up was the Global Stars, the UK’s only four-ship formation pyrotechnic display team. Once again, a large number of pyrotechnics were mounted onto each aircraft, of differing colours and firing from a number of different positions on the aircraft. In addition to the clever use of their unique ‘dotty’ smoke system, the Global Stars also utilise fuselage-mounted LED lighting to very good effect. Whereas the Pioneers only really close their show with pyrotechnics, the Global Stars use them to great effect throughout their performance. However, they can only legally fly during dusk and aim to land one minute ahead of official dark – something they consistently achieved in Zhengzhou!
With the Global Stars safely on the ground, the stage was set for the AeroSparx to perform their unique pyrotechnic finale, something they performed nightly with panache.
Technical photographic issues
The technical problems of shooting air-to-air photography at night tested my photographic equipment and its capabilities to the limits. What was finally achieved was largely due to the patience and support of the individual teams who made time for night-time pyrotechnic formation shoots.
Ground-based photographers at the event are able to use tripod-mounted cameras with long shutter speed exposures, allowing for some amazing light trail images, but when you are in the air you still have to capture pin-sharp images for magazine reproduction, so slow shutter speeds are out of the question. Added to that, it can be quite disconcerting to be flying alongside a formation of four aircraft while they are firing a series of large fireworks from the wing tips! Positioning the formation against a suitable background – like the airshow itself – also takes some series planning as once the pyros are fired, there is no switching them off and back on again! It literally is a ‘one-shot deal’!
For the technically minded readers, shooting on high-end Nikon DSLR gear with a 28-300mm/f4.5 telephoto lens, I was operating at 1,600asa and managing a shutter speed of around 1/125th of a second. At this ASA setting, the images can still be a little ‘noisy’ so sharpening in post production can be difficult – making the grain appear more like golf balls! Thankfully, modern, high-end digital photographic technology has seen massive leaps in quality at the higher ASA settings – although always at a large financial cost! Holding the camera steady is an absolute imperative; and even more difficult when working by an open doorway with both the airflow and an occasional stray pyrotechnic coming your way.
One should not underestimate the importance of the cameraship pilot in all of this activity. His role cannot be understated and the teamwork starts with the initial planning of the sortie and only finishes at the debriefing. During both of my visits to Zhengzhou I have been privileged to work with a young but clearly extraordinary French Commercial pilot, Alexis Delafosse, who demonstrated his steady skills on every sortie we flew together. It was reassuring for me to know he was sitting just in front of me!
Massive TV audiences
The town of Zhengzhou is dominated by a massive Aluminium processing factory – with all of the expected pollution one would associate with it. The atmosphere was occasional smoggy and the visibility consequentially poor but generally it did not hamper the event. However, during one evening of relatively low cloud and heavy smog, I witnessed at first hand when airborne during an evening pyrotechnic air-to-air shoot, the goldfish bowl effect that can be caused during that combination of conditions. We quickly cancelled the proposed shoot and safely recovered all aircraft back onto the ground.
Aside from ticket sales on public days, the event was heavily supported by local and regional government initiatives – providing a large and diverse trade show. However, the organisers provided more than just an air show; with daily live music concerts and entertainment in the grounds. The very long crowd line was usually busy although it is always difficult to judge actual visitor numbers. However, live tv feeds from the event were broadcast on Chinese national TV with a viewing audience of more than two billion being claimed. Now that’s a lot of people!
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