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A Day in the Life: 4th Fest Pyrotechnics Chair Gary Mayhew

by on July 04, 2013 10:10 AM

Gary Mayhew was awake at the crack of dawn this morning ready to get to the fields behind Beaver Stadium and go to work. He likes to think that he has an exciting day ahead of him, but the Fourth of July agenda for the 4th Fest pyrotechnics chairman is a bit different than your average person. There’s no swimming in pools or hanging out at barbecues – Just fireworks and more fireworks.

Before the show begins at 9:15 p.m., Mayhew and his pyrotechnics team will have completed three dress rehearsals and several meetings to make sure everything ready to go.

Here's how Mayhew’s 15 hour day will play out:

7 a.m. – There’s no sleeping in today. Mayhew and his team arrive on scene and begin to get all of the set pieces and fireworks for the grand finale set up in the field. “I think the parking lot entrances are still closed at that time. Once we find our way in, we’ll go to work,” jokes Mayhew.

9:30 a.m. – Once everything is set up, the first dress rehearsal takes place. The pyrotechnics team will run through the full 46-minute show on their computers testing all of the systems. From there, they will troubleshoot any problems they see with any field modules and make necessary adjustments.

11 a.m. – It’s time for a check-in with the radio station 93.7 the BUS. The call isn’t for an on-air interview though. The BUS will be broadcasting the choreographed music that goes with the show, and Mayhew needs to check to make sure all frequencies are in sync and no issues with the sound system or generators exist.

1 p.m. – It’s now time to set up the fireworks tent which will be home base for Mayhew and his crew the rest of the day. Here, they will have a short meeting to check the progress on everything.

2 p.m. – The second dress rehearsal of the day begins, and the pyrotechnics are looking for a few things here. Their systems need to be in sync, and they need to make sure the show can start on command. Additionally, they will check to see if they can pause the system should a problem arise during the actual show.

3 p.m. – It’s time for another group meeting. At this point, it feels like a lot of work has been done, but the day is only half over, and the fireworks are still over six hours away.

6 p.m. – This part goes unnoticed to the general public, but it is one of the most important aspects of the day for safety reasons. Mayhew contacts the University Park Airport so they can issue a Notice to Airmen. This informs all commercial pilots that there will be fireworks in their direct flight path later tonight. The airport here then relays this information to Williamsport and Harrisburg.

7 p.m. – Another full show rehearsal gets underway. With most problems already addressed, the focus here will be on special effects. It’s the third and final dry run, so this is the last chance to get everything right.

8 p.m. – Everyone gathers back at the control tent that was set up earlier. This time, volunteers from Alpha Fire Company, Boalsburg Fire Company, and Penn State are all part of the meeting.

8:30 p.m. – The anticipation is building. Mayhew goes through one last safety briefing with all of his spotters. “This is one of the last organizational things we do before the show,” explains Mayhew. “All of the spotters will be strategically staged somewhere, and we’ll be constantly communicating through two-way radio and cell phones.”

9:14:50 p.m. – The BUS comes back into play. As the countdown reaches 10 seconds, the station gives a cue to Mayhew that they’re ready. The station will then start the music which will start the time code.

9:15 p.m. – The show that will feature more than 10,500 shells and a grand finale that launches 45 shells per second begins. Mayhew can take a quick breath, but he’s not finished yet. “My role begins to resemble an orchestra conductor,” says Mayhew. The show will be monitored using four on-site computers. A backup system is on-hand should a change need to be made. The past 13 years has resulted in a few minor fires but no weather issues and no major problems.

Launching 45 shells a second for the finale has been done before, but longtime 4th Fest watchers should still expect some new wrinkles.

“We try to do something different every year, whether it’s experimenting with different special effects or launching some fireballs. We always want there to be something new.”

10:02 p.m. -- Another 4th Fest show is in the books, but the pyrotechnics team cannot go home just yet. 

10:30 p.m. – After waiting approximately 30 minutes for the fields to clear out, Mayhew and his team look for any shells that did not go off. They will then fire them into the sky manually.

11:15 p.m. – It’s finally time to call it a night. The cleanup procedure will continue in the morning.

Fittingly, after all this hard work, planning for the 2014 show is not too far away. Mayhew says that it begins again in August with selecting music and picking the special effects. After that, they will determine what shells they need for the following summer.

Mayhew is helped out by co-assistant chairs Ken Fohringer and Matt Lindenberg. With some other pyrotechnic committee members doing their part, his team reaches about 20 volunteers.

Above all, this is what keeps him coming back for the past 13 years as he embarks on another 4th of July fireworks show tonight.

“It’s like going to an extended family reunion behind Beaver Stadium. I might only spend two or three weeks with them a year, but the time is priceless. It’s all worth it.”

Drew Balis is a Penn State graduate, freelance reporter and frequent contributor to
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