The stories you tell happen here.
To some, it’s the official kick-off to the Kentucky Derby Festival. To others, it’s the unofficial beginning of spring. But to all, it’s simply one of the largest annual fireworks shows in North America and the setting for some of the most memorable moments you’ll ever share.
Now in its 29th year, Thunder Over Louisville continues to deliver a pyrotechnics spectacular like no other. Created as the Opening Ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival, it offers an explosive kick-off to three entire weeks of celebration in Louisville, Kentucky and Southern Indiana. With an estimated average attendance of half a million people, it has become the largest annual event in its region. The show continues to be the largest annual pyrotechnics display in North America thanks to the artistry of Zambelli Internationale and the production of Visual Presentations.
“It’s the kind of show you have to see to believe,” says Matt Gibson, Derby Festival Sr. Vice President of Events. “We have great television coverage of the event, but unless you are there in person, you can’t FEEL the fireworks pounding in your chest and the concrete vibrate underneath your feet. Thunder is the kind of show that needs to be felt and not just seen and heard.”
Staging the pyrotechnic spectacular of Thunder each year for the Derby Festival is the First Family of Fireworks. Zambelli Fireworks Internationale first became involved with Thunder Over Louisville in 1991. The annual show is larger than the opening and closing ceremonies of the Atlanta and Barcelona Olympics combined. According to the Zambellis, it is unchallenged as the largest annual pyrotechnic production in North America.
To assemble a show the size of Thunder, Zambelli Internationale utilizes eight tractor trailers filled with nearly 60 tons of fireworks shells. The physical setup includes 250 tons of launching tubes, some as high as 10 feet with a diameter of 1½ feet. Two million pounds of sand will pack the firing tubes on 1,800 feet of barges. Almost 700 miles of wire cable connecting 20 firing boards are tied to the command post for synchronization to the music. This is the largest show the Zambellis perform each year, and the Zambellis are the largest fireworks family in the world.
The magic of Thunder is in the formula of the show, says Wayne Hettinger, Show Producer and owner of Visual Presentations. “Each year, people think we make the show longer to be the largest show and that’s just not the case. The secret with Thunder has been to pack as much firepower into 28 minutes as possible and produce a series of ‘finales.'” Hettinger has it down to a science, working with the team from Zambelli to create a heart-stopping, eye-popping show.
“It all starts with the music,” continues Hettinger. “We work to lay out a soundtrack that most everyone will be able to relate to a couple of songs. This enables people to bring their own experience with these songs and project them into the show they’re watching. It’s very gratifying to see people start to move and react to their favorite cuts of the soundtrack, and it gives Zambelli the foundation on which to build the show.”
What started with 3000 shells at a local stadium is now the nation’s largest annual fireworks extravaganza held at the junction of two states at a bend in the Ohio River. The addition of a special theme in 1994 gave the producers a way to incorporate a special musical score to the pyrotechnics. The themes also give each Thunder a unique flavor. And since the beginning, all shows have included a special salute to America.
1990 – Opening Ceremonies of Derby Festival
1991 – “Thunder Over Louisville” used for fireworks only
1992 – Celebrating KY’s Bicentennial year, “Celebrate Kentucky”
1993 – Derby Festival Opening Ceremonies: Thunder Over Louisville
1994 – “Phantom of the Opera”
1995 – “An American Thunder”
1996 – “A Hollywood Thunder ”
1997 – “A Wild Blue Thunder” salutes the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Air Force
1998 – “A Thunder Fantasy…A Celebration of Children”
1999 – “The Best of Thunder” 10th Anniversary
2000 – “A Millennium Thunder”
2001 – “A Festival Odyssey”
2002 – “A Stars & Stripes Thunder”
2003 – “Centennial of Flight”
2004 – “A Broadway Thunder”
2005 – “Thunder Rocks”
2006 – “Thunder Country”
2007 – “The Magic of Thunder”
2008 – “Out of This World”
2009 – “Thunder Road”
2010 – “Thunder Fever: May Increase Heart Rate”
2011 – “Thunder Power”
2012 – “Star Spangled Blast”
2013 – “Thunder Vision”
2014 – “Throwback Thunder”
2015 – “Boom with A View”
2016 – “No Strings Attached”
2017 – “Local & Original”
2018 – “A Disco Thunder”
2000 – Matt Marks
2001 – Hand transplant recipients: Matthew Scott and Jerry Fisher Launch Director Jim Harrington of NASA
2002 – Col. Donnie Storm – KY Army National Guard and Col. Mike Hardin – KY Air National Guard
2003 – Sherry Callahan – F-15 Demo Team Pilot
2005 – Robinson Brown, Jr., 1957 Derby Festival Chairman
2006 – World War II veteran Bruce Voges and Allison Barber, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Internal Communications and Public Liaison
2007 – WWII Veteran Morris Washington and David Garrard of the Louisville Magic Club
2008 – NASA Commander Peggy Whitson and Astronaut Garrett Reisman in the International Space Station
2009 – U.S. Army Sergeant Bryan Anderson, who was severely wounded in Iraq in 2005
2010 – UPS pilot Brian Duffy, founder and President of Honor Flight – Bluegrass Chapter
2011 – Medal of Honor recipients Hershel “Woody” Williams and Don Jenkins
2012 – Dakota Meyer, Veteran of the United States Marine Corps and Medal of Honor recipient
2013 – Tom Hattom, Kentucky Lottery Festival Fanatic Contest Winner
2014 – Melanie Chilton, Kentucky Lottery Festival Fanatic Contest Winner
2015 – Michael Ernstberger, Kentucky Lottery Festival Fanatic Contest Winner
2016 – Pat Kemper, Kentucky Lottery Festival Fanatic Contest Winner
2017 – Mary Hager, Kentucky Lottery Festival Fanatic Contest Winner
One of the things that makes Thunder Over Louisville so magical each year is the soundtrack broadcast from the Thunder sound system around the venue, and on 106.9 PLAY during the fireworks show. The shells seem to dance along to the beat of each score. For 28 minutes each year, fans are treated to a broad range of music from urban contemporary and pop to country, rock’n ‘roll, Broadway show tunes and just about anything recorded!
Says Wayne Hettinger, Thunder Show Producer, “We try to fill the soundtrack with a little something for everyone. What’s interesting is that everyone hearing the show has a different personal connection with particular songs and you can see it in their reaction to the different cuts of music. Each song means a little something different to each person.”
And what would Thunder be without a sense of patriotism? A number of patriotic American songs will also be included as a salute to our great nation and the values upon which she was founded.
Says KDF Sr. VP of Events, Matt Gibson, “This is one soundtrack you don’t want to miss. If you’re not in earshot of the many thunder sound towers throughout the venue, make sure you have your radio tuned to SummitMedia and WVEZ 106.9 PLAY. This is a show you’ll want to feel, see and HEAR!”
Tune in to 106.9 PLAY – the Official Radio Partner of Thunder Over Louisville – to hear a live feed of the entire Thunder soundtrack.
High atop the Galt House on Thunder Day, you can hear the activity as you step off the elevator. “This is command to Ground Zero. I have a location on the downed microwave link.” “Aviation control to Standiford field, do we have clearance?” “This is broadcast operations, you have 5 seconds to a live shot.” Louisville’s answer to mission control and the Starship Enterprise, it’s the single point where Thunder Over Louisville is controlled. It is the Thunder Command Center.
Don’t think about dropping by unannounced, you will be met be armed gatekeepers. Louisville Police just doing their jobs. Even media is invited for a quick interview and escorted on their way. Sound like serious business for a day of fireworks fun? The crew in the command center take their responsibility seriously, so the day can be just that!
This is the nerve center for the entire show, from air operations to fireworks and sound to the central command for police, fire and emergency medical services. Four hotel rooms are converted in one week to house better technology than was used by NASA for the 1st lunar landing.
The Thunder Command Center controls the largest annual production in the Commonwealth. It relies on the service of every possible public agency from the Coast Guard to the Department of Corrections. It involves the rerouting of air traffic to Louisville International Airport, closing the Ohio River to commercial traffic, closing a state bridge, distributing sound by microwave to over 27 locations, a live television broadcast and providing food and restrooms for an estimated 600,000 people.
Communication is tantamount to a production of this magnitude. The controllers for every aspect of the show are housed in this central location and communicate with their people on “Ground Zero” (the event area) via cell phone, landline, radio or microwave. The hardware includes 475 hand-held radios, 200 cellular phones, 50 hard-wire lines and microwave links with 2 miles of wire on both sides of the river. Commands are coming and going from air, land, bridge, and water.
Disk-based computer technology is used to distribute information and run the show at the hands of producer Wayne Hettinger. Linked with the U.S. Naval Observatories atomic clock, the computer verbally alerts Thunder operations personnel of their status at the appropriate time. Several computers store the thousands of information cues that developed out of 9 months of ideas and dreams. This hi-tech information is relayed throughout the day at a mind-boggling rate.
Humans still play a vital role in the day. The air show is controlled by an air boss and staff linked directly to Standiford and Bowman fields. Police and EMS dispatchers relay information to ground forces from this satellite location. Information on lost children, media requests, and even toilet paper updates are communicated to the shows epi-center.
More than 2000 people will be working on Derby Festival Opening Ceremonies: Thunder Over Louisville to ensure a safe and crowd-pleasing show. They will be directed from Thunder’s Command Center on a stage that includes Ground Zero, the Ohio River and the airspace above. They will present a 7 hour performance unequaled anywhere, without any dress rehearsal or single practice run.
The Festival relies on the professional services of many vendors and the efforts of nearly 2000 volunteers to help produce its Opening Ceremonies. With the financial support of generous sponsors the stage is set.
Senior Show Director
Show Tech Director
Derby Festival Thunder Event Manager
Derby Festival Sr. VP of Events/Thunder Operations
Derby Festival President & CEO
Michael E. Berry
Derby Festival Chair
Derby Festival Executive Board
Nancy Jo Trafton
Event Assistant Chairs
Air Boss Assistant
Air Traffic Controller
Tricia Siegwald, KDF Director of Event Production
Mary June Robinson
Federal Aviation Administration
Event Operations Assistant
Nancy Jo Trafton
LMPD Operations, Event Operations
Maj. Andrea Brown
Lt. Dale Massey
Lt. Jill Hume
Maj. Jimmy Harper
Sgt. Billy Patterson
Lost Child Operations
River Safety Operations
Sgt. Matt Staples
Officer Chad Crick
Marine Barge Operations Liaison
CGB Mitch Whelan
Marine Safety Operations
LCDR Adrian Michalowski
Media & Public Information
Aimee Boyd, KDF VP of Communications
Military Air Operations
Col. David Mounkes
Maj. Josh Ketterer
Capt. Nick Reinke
1st Lt. Chad Applegate
Pyro Tech Safety
Overall Area Captain
Rip Hatfield II
April Zik, KDF Director of Sponsorship Sales
The Festival does not receive tax dollars or monetary funding from local government, but the services of many public agencies ensure that Thunder happens each year. You would not see the show without their support.
Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms
American Red Cross
City of Jeffersonville
Coast Guard Auxiliary
Dismas Charities, Inc.
Emergency Services (EMA/MetroSafe)
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Flight Standards FAA Louisville
Indiana Department of Transportation
Indiana State Police
Indiana Water Patrol
Inspections Permits & Licenses
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office
Jeffersonville Fire Department
Kentucky Army National Guard
Kentucky Air National Guard
Kentucky Department of Transportation
Kentucky State Police
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
Louisville Fire and Rescue
Louisville International Airport
Louisville Metro EMS
Louisville Metro Police
Louisville Metro Police Dive Team
Louisville Metro Police Traffic
Metro Louisville Electrical Maintenance Department
Metro Louisville Public Works
Metro Louisville Solid Waste Management
National Weather Service
Rush Aerial Advertising
Township of Clarksville
US Coast Guard
Waterfront Development Co.
Vendors donating some of their services to support the show:
The Galt House
Cunningham Golf Carts
Professional Fence Company
Radio Communication Systems
Sternberg Truck Rental