A flare for the dramatic

By Cameron McCullough Photos Yanni & supplied

Imagine a job where you get to set off fireworks for a living. It sounds like every kid’s dream gig, but for Balnarring’s Rusty Johnson, it is his livelihood.

When Rusty was working as a secondary school teacher, he got involved in the Rock Eisteddfod Challenge with his school. The performance required a bit of pyrotechnics, and it was there that Rusty discovered his new passion.

“I was approached by Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics,” said Rusty. “The Sydney-based company was looking to branch out into other states, and they wanted me to come on board.”

Having originally come from a fine arts background, this business offered Rusty a unique opportunity; “Instead of painting on a canvas, I can paint in the sky,” said Rusty, who’s been with the company for about 15 years now.

In the early days of Howard & Sons, momentum came from fireworks displays at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the bi-centenary celebrations of the first settlement at Sydney Cove. But things did not go to plan as the sale of fireworks was banned in Australia in the late 1970s and the company, which had depended on retail and wholesale sales of fireworks, began a new focus as a display-only team. The company has since built their reputation not only on their displays, but on their results competing in international fireworks competitions.

Competitive fireworks competitions allow fireworks companies from across the world to show their skills. “We came second in Montreal in 2019, and we won the Da Nang competition in Vietnam in 2015. It usually consists of being given a shipping container full of fireworks and having two weeks to put together a 20 – 30 minute show. It is a lot of pressure to design and execute a show in such a short timeframe, but it is very exciting,” said Rusty.

Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics do shows all over the world of all different shapes, sizes, and varying budgets. Showcasing 800-900 shows a year across Australia and internationally, the company continues to grow and stay in huge demand. “We can do a show with a $500 budget up to a multi-million-dollar show spread over multiple locations.” One of the biggest shows they have ever done was in Doha, Qatar, where the fireworks stretched along a 5.5-kilometre front. “The infrastructure required for a show such as that is immense, as everything is computer controlled.”

The pyrotechnics business is not immune from changing technology, with computers now managing the shows. “Computerisation is one of the greatest changes in our industry. No longer are people manually triggering the fireworks; we use electronic ignitors that run the show as per a pre-programmed sequence.” It means that the fireworks displays are far more precise than in the past, with the timing measured in 100th of a second.

Not everything always runs to plan though.

“Once we were commissioned to do a firework display to commemorate the retirement of a prominent Essendon player.” Rusty explains that James was to come out onto the oval in a car and be driven around while a five minute highlights video played. All accompanied by fireworks. When the video rolled, the start button was pushed for the fireworks, and they all ignited at once.

“It was a short, albeit spectacular, display!”

Rusty feels fortunate that he often gets to share the extraordinary light shows with his family. “As I am required to travel quite a bit for work, the family tends to come along. The kids think it is pretty cool.”

The family-run Howard & Sons have a reputation around the world for thinking outside the box and have worked hard to improve the environmental impact of their displays. Being at the forefront of sustainability, they are reusing their tubes and adopting technology to reduce their charge sizes considerably. “People have the wrong idea about fireworks. They immediately think they are polluting, but most of them are quite benign,” said Rusty.

An interesting fact is that not all fireworks are the same. “Different countries will produce different colours better. It depends on the raw materials they are using and their differing techniques. Spain produces great fireworks with unique colours. China produces other things better,” said Rusty. The company continues to stand out from the crowd by sourcing products from across the globe.

Once the product is sourced, Howard and Sons use a unique modular approach in their operations which means they can set up and disassemble quickly after a show which is important when events need to move on to something else as they did for the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Delhi, and Melbourne.

But by far the most rewarding part of the job is the luminous final display of dancing lights in the night sky.

“Seeing the joy our hard work creates is just a great experience.”