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The Leonardo Gallery

El Diablo

by Jack Schroll

© Jack Schroll. Photo © Louis Brill.

El Diablo is a formidable title for a fire artwork, but in operation the fire's volcanic egress speaks for itself as seemingly, "all hell has broken loose and surely the devil can't be to far behind." Such is the poetry of spectacular fire gussied up as art. The name El Diablo was given to it by my daughter. It is loud and scary and it breathes fire.

The inspiration to create such a spectacle came from the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sidney, Australia. The closing pyrotechnic displays that year had included several aircraft from the Australian Air Force. The pilots did a rather low fly-by during which they turned on their afterburners and created a brilliant display of light streaks and fire in the night sky.

I have attended the Burning Man Festival every year since 1996. It was in the Winter of 2002 that the concept of a ground-based jet engine breathing fire into the night sky struck me. I remembered watching the jet aircraft from the Olympic display and wondered if I could create a similar effect from the ground.

In April of 2003, I decided to create a ground-based jet engine version of the Olympic presentation. I began by finding the engine, a small centrifugal gas turbine on Ebay. Small by today's standards, it produces about 1000 horsepower. It was the left hand engine from a French fighter/trainer called the Fuga Magista. As soon as I saw the engine I knew it was right for the project. I bought it and had it shipped to my shop. Next I needed a platform to build this on. I found an old two axle boat trailer that was being sold by a storage yard for lack of payment. I spent the better part of three months gathering parts. By early July of 2003 I was ready to begin building the most powerful flame effects device the Playa had ever seen.

I had many hurdles and setbacks. I had no experience with gas turbines and less experience with afterburners. Almost like a miracle, a friend of mine who was a key part of the project knew someone who did turbine research for NASA. He gave us the key information we needed to build a flame holder for the afterburner. To me it seemed so simple, inject flammable liquid into a jet stream with temperatures near 1000 degrees C and ignite it. It was at that moment the El Diablo came to life. This was much to the dismay of the Livermore, CA, fire department. When they arrived we had already shut down the test. They said they were looking for the fire from a ruptured gas main. Our tests showed that the sound level of this device is 147 db at 50 feet. The flames shot over 75 feet into the air. We had a working unit.

To operate it the person at the controls must wear a fire proximity suit. El Diablo's running time is limited to bursts of three or four seconds, after that, the heat is too extreme for it to run. During its run time, it becomes a show with flames at varying heights, flames changing color, and the titanium effect of glitter and sparkles swirling about its afterburn exhaust. To see El Diablo in full force reminds you of the raw power and energy that fire has and the beauty it offers when harnessed safely.

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Updated 13 April 2007.

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