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Fourth of July fireworksFourth of July fireworks

See them from the skySee them from the sky

Editor's note: This article was updated June 27 to correct an erroneous location reference. AOPA regrets the error.

Have you wondered what fireworks are like when seen from an airplane? Some pilots find it disappointing, in part because the sound of the explosions is absent. But others have pronounced an aerial view of a fireworks display to be a "spectacular” sight. Here are a few tips and ideas to make the most of an aviator's point of view on a holiday tradition that dates to 1777.

  • Fireworks explode over a Cessna 172. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A fireworks show on New Year’s Eve 2014 over San Francisco Bay, near the Bay Bridge and viewed from a Cessna 172. Photo by Gregory Mazzola and Sophia Finn.
  • A barrage of fireworks explode over San Francisco Bay on New Year’s Eve 2014. Photo by Gregory Mazzola and Sophia Finn.

As with any flight, you need to plan. Check around your area to find out where the fireworks displays will be. Some big cities like New York have excellent displays but also have airspace restrictions that won’t allow you to fly near the fireworks. Often, major league baseball stadiums host fireworks displays, but there is always a temporary flight restriction over a major league baseball game, which rules out that option. If you live along the coast and the weather is good VFR, you may be in luck, as many coastal cities shoot off fireworks from barges just offshore. If you are comfortable with the idea of flying over the ocean, you can position yourself farther offshore and watch the fireworks, which also may be reflected in the water, from there.

Most professional-grade fireworks only travel a few hundred feet into the air, and it’s extremely rare for any to travel higher than 1,000 feet agl. To comply with federal aviation regulations you must be at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a 2,000-foot horizontal radius of your aircraft, so you shouldn’t need to worry that you’ll be hit by any of the fireworks. Generally speaking, about 1,500 to 2,500 feet agl is a good range. And don’t circle too close to the display or you risk annoying those on the ground. People might even worry that you’ll get hit by fireworks and crash. Even if you are nowhere near the explosions, it may not appear that way from the ground, which may prompt a worried spectator to call the authorities. Make sure your strobes are on and be vigilant for other air traffic. Tune to the local common traffic advisory frequency to communicate with any other pilots who may be circling the same display as you, be in contact with ATC when in controlled airspace, and always remember to fly the airplane first. Consider delegating photography to your passenger so you can focus on flying safely.

Fireworks explode just offshore of Santa Barbara, California, on July 4, 2010. Photo by John Wiley,

A few places with exceptional fireworks displays are listed below. You also can check your local news, but remember to thoroughly check for TFRs and read notams.

Bristol, Rhode Island—This town claims to have the oldest fireworks show in the U.S. Fireworks are over Bristol Harbor.

Narberth, Pennsylvania—This well-to-do community typically puts on a lavish show.

Gorham, New Hampshire—Fireworks over a large carnival site.

Saratoga Springs, New York—Over Congress Park.

Corolla, North Carolina—Fireworks over the Outer Banks.

Hartford, Connecticut—Over the Connecticut River.

Nashville, Tennessee—Over the Cumberland River as part of the two-day “Let Freedom Sing!” citywide party.

Addison, Texas—This small town north of Dallas calls its show "Kaboom Town." The town goes all-out, and the flat terrain makes the flying/viewing easier.

Lake Tahoe, California—Over the lake of course, but watch the high altitude, which will affect performance, not to mention the “cumulus granite.”

San Francisco Bay—If you can safely navigate the Bay Area, San Francisco and Oakland offer great shows.

Seattle, Washington—Over Lake Union, but a heavy traffic area.

Laughlin, Nevada—One of the West’s best shows, “Rockets Over the River” is held over the Colorado River.

Farmington, New Mexico—My out-of-the-way favorite. Southeast of town and just south of the San Juan River lies the 12,000-acre B-Square Ranch. Its eccentric owner, Tommy Bolack, loves to blow things up. He has a Class B explosives license from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and creates his own custom-formula fireworks. Locals come from miles around to watch him detonate some 750 pounds of explosive material in 500 large shots and about 2,000 smaller ones. For more on Bolack, his Electromechanical Museum, and Farmington, see this article in the Destinations section of the AOPA website.

And be safe out there.

Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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