20 Awesome Pics of Jets Blazing Firetrails Across the Sky

Simone Preuss
Simone Preuss
Scribol Staff
Technology, April 18, 2012
  • City on fire: Brisbane ablaze with light during Riverfire 2006.

    All images copyright of their photographers and used with permission

    The people watching gasp with delight as the first aircraft ignites its excess fuel, emitting a swooshing sound and etching a blazing trail across the night sky. Soon, another F-111 approaches from the opposite direction, leaving a similarly beautiful streak of light in its wake. With baited breath, the crowd awaits the inevitable crossing of the streams. Soon, as expected, the burning trails intersect, though both planes fly away unscathed. A few sighs of relief can be heard among those watching. We’ve got 20 stunning images of dump-and-burns for your perusal – each as amazing as the next!

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  • Two to tango: A pair of F-111s approach each other in mid-air while keeping a safe distance from during their dump-and-burn runs.

    If pigs could fly, is this what they might look like? We’d certainly wish it so. The General Dynamics F-111 ‘Aardvarks’, as they’re officially known, have lovingly been dubbed ‘pigs’ by their pilots. Due to a design quirk (more on which later), they’re perfect for creating the spectacular ‘dump-and-burns’ before your eyes. What’s a dump-and-burn? Kind of what it sounds like: the dumping of fuel that’s ignited by the aircraft’s afterburners. The images best illustrate what happens next…

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  • Light fantastic: A spectacular angle on the dump-and-burn display at Riverfire 2003.

    Riverfestival, where most of the photographs collected here were taken, is an important annual event in Brisbane, Australia. Its purpose is to promote and celebrate the Brisbane River – and it does so in some style! Held for the first time in 1996, when it was known as ‘Down by the River’, the festival was renamed ‘Brisbane River Festival’ in 1998, and finally ‘Riverfestival’ in 1999. Names notwithstanding, the festival was soon attracting visitors from far and wide, and since 2009 it has been merged with the annual Brisbane Festival.

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  • Carved in two: The first dump-and-burn to slice across the Brisbane skyline and along the South Bank of the Brisbane River, at Riverfire 2010.

    One of the genuine highlights of Riverfestival over the years has been Riverfire, a 30-minute pyrotechnic show that sets the sky above Brisbane literally ablaze with light. The fireworks and dump-and-burns have long been favorites with the crowds that gather – and we can see why!

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  • Incoming… Beautiful angle on a dump-and-burn at Riverfire 2007, with buildings in the foreground, boats on the river, the fireworks in the center, and the dump-and-burn seemingly falling to earth like a giant shooting star.

    As we can see in this next photograph, apart from the three main bridges involved in the festival – the Victoria Bridge, Story Bridge and Goodwill Bridge – the fireworks are also set off from Brisbane’s boats and buildings, making the river appear awash with light. Magical.

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  • Everything is illuminated: “The second dump-and-burn was along the city reach of the Brisbane River,” comments photographer Marty Pouwelse on this capture. Notice the small gap in the stream of fire behind the plane.

    Aside from the fireworks, the main stars of the Riverfire show have of course been the one or more participating F-111s – medium-range strike aircraft and strategic bombers based at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base in Amberley, about 31 miles (50 km) southwest of Brisbane.

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  • Wow! A city apparently on fire at Riverfire 2009; Brisbane lit up by the fireworks and intersecting dump-and-burns of two F-111s, painting the river a flaming orange hue.

    Apparently, any aircraft that carries a significant amount of fuel needs to have the capacity to lighten its load by dumping the juice that keeps it up in the air. So far, so normal-sounding. But, as we mentioned earlier, the spectacular displays by our ‘Aardvarks’ that are dump-and-burns are actually the result of a design quirk.

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  • Is this for real? Brisbane during Riverfire 2008; a dump-and-burn stretches along the river while fireworks are released into the sky from four tall buildings simultaneously.

    Wing Commander Micka Gray, who has piloted F-111s for 22 years and oversaw proceedings during Riverfire 2010, explains more about what makes the Aardvarks special: “With the F-111, the dump port where the fuel comes out is actually between the engines,” he says. “And because we are an after-burner aircraft, which gives us more power, we basically inject fuel into the exhaust.”

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  • Don’t cross my trail! Dump-and-burns from two F-111s photographed just before they intersect at Riverfire 2007. Either there is no danger for a plane in flying through a dump-and-burn or our eyes are playing tricks on us and the dump-and-burns are actually further apart than they appear.

    What Wing Commander Gray is saying equates to this: while in other aircraft dumped fuel would appear simply as a vapor stream, when the F-111 has its afterburners on, the fuel is close enough to ignite – resulting in the stunning displays seen here.

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  • Jet set: A close-up of a dump-and-burn firing up during Riverfire 2010. Let your imagination run wild and see what it reminds you of. A light bulb in flames? A giant glowworm? Or, as one observer had it: “For a second… I thought I was looking at an Airbus wingtip and the sun setting behind it!” The sky’s the limit, literally.

    Further proof of the somewhat arbitrary characteristic of dump-and-burns is suggested by the comment of an Australian F-111 enthusiast posted on a forum: “There is nothing in the flight manual with the specifics of the dump-and-burn,” writes Andrea, “just fuel dumping.” So, clearly someone, somewhere along the line, had a bright idea…

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  • Rollercoaster ride: Purple fireworks reach up to meet a blazing white trail in another spectacular shot from Riverfire 2010.

    Although practically all the images collected here show aerial exhibitions from Brisbane’s Riverfestival, the spectacular combination of flames and high-speed fly-bys have proven hits at air shows elsewhere as well. F-111s were even put in service for a dump-and-burn display at the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney.

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  • Night and day: An F-111 performing a dump-and-burn at Amberley Airshow in 2008.

    Here’s an example of an air show (close to Brisbane) where dump-and-burns have turned out to be popular – and for us, a different perspective on the phenomenon, showing the aircraft and its burning fuel up close and during the daytime. With the plane’s darker nose up in the air and what looks like an eye on the left of its ‘snout’, we can’t help being reminded of a dolphin riding the waves. Or is it Dumbo, the flying elephant? Whichever creature it resembles, it sure looks like they had one explosive lunch!

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  • Slice n’ dice: Like a surgical incision cutting the night sky in two, a dump-and-burn from Riverfire 2009.

    Although we’ve been referring to this singularly eye-catching means of aircraft getting rid of excess fuel by their descriptive name of dump-and-burns, it might interest you to know that they’re also sometimes known by the no less prosaic monikers, ‘torching’ and ‘zippos’.

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  • Burn, baby, burn! A dump-and-burn like a giant glow stick at Riverfire 2008.

    Whatever you want to call them, the blistering aerial displays at Riverfire over the years have always elicited exclamations of delight from crowds watching the climax of the festival’s firework display. And it’s small wonder that the first dump-and-burn in 1998 was an instant hit – particularly with the element of surprise on its side.

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  • Blazing a trail: More beautifully colored pyrotechnics complement a dump-and-burn during Riverfire 2010.

    How we wish we were there… With the dump-and-burn display slicing through a night sky positively aglow with its own light as well as that of pyrotechnics ‘in bloom’, this shot is definitely one of our favorites. Set off simultaneously, the fireworks look like a dozen or so purple palm trees. Can you find them all?

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  • Reflect on this: Brisbane exploding with lights during Riverfire 2006. Various fireworks, a dump-and-burn and the river reflecting the lot all add to the magic.

    With dazzling displays of light zipping before our eyes, it might be easy to assume that dump-and-burns please everyone equally – but unfortunately this isn’t quite the case. Critics of the maneuver point to the wastage of perfectly good fuel – about 200 liters a time – not to mention the exhaust fumes the displays produce, which can’t be doing much for cutting back on emissions.

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  • Two fountains: During Riverfire 2005, a dump-and-burn forms a V over the smoky, light-filled city of Brisbane while a firework display is set off from the ship on the left.

    However, moving to quench the fires of such environmental objections, Wing Commander Micka Gray counters: “For the actual dump-and-burn, it’s probably only a couple of hundred liters of fuel extra to what we’re doing anyway, so you get a lot of glow for a little bit of fuel.”

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  • Happiness is… A dump-and-burn curving over Brisbane like a giant smile at Riverfire 2009.

    And, further boosting the case for dump-and-burns past, Wing Commander Gray insists that Riverfire has been a special kind of training mission for his squadron – albeit one with a purely peaceful objective. “[I]n this case, rather than simulating a target in a war mission, the target is the city or the target point we need to get to on time,” he says.

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  • Down to earth: An F-111 performing a bonus dump-and-burn during Riverfire 2010.

    Still, staunch critics of dump-and-burns can rest assured, because 2010 was the last year that the F-111s performed their signature maneuver at Riverfire. After the best part of 50 years in service, the planes have been retired, and replaced at Riverfire by F/A-18F Super Hornets, nicknamed ‘rhinos’. And though technically far superior, Hornets don’t have the same dump-and-burn capability of the Aardvarks they’ve succeeded.

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  • Message in the sky: One of the last dump-and-burns being performed by an F-111 before its decommissioning. The plane came down to end the 2010 Ipswich, Queensland Lord Mayor’s Christmas carols in style, just a week before being retired. Not bad at all for a plane that saw service for over 45 years.

    Those wondering what happens to Riverfire without the popular dump-and-burns can get an idea by looking at some photographs of the display in 2011, the first year after the F-111s got decommissioned. As photographer Marty Pouwelse observed: “The night was not the same without the F-111s but the lasers in conjunction with the fireworks were pretty damn impressive.”

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  • Last but not least: A rather surreal impression from Riverfire 2007.

    With foliage and trees in the foreground silhouetted against the dissecting trails of dump-and-burns and fireworks in the background, one could almost mistake this bonus image for a bushfire! Thankfully, though, this was a controlled spectacle!

    For readers wanting to see the stunning event first hand, Riverfire will close the Brisbane Festival (September 8–29) with aplomb on the last day – albeit minus the crowd-pleaser extraordinaire, the magnificent dump-and-burns.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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