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Next year, I plan to fly from Europe to China around new year's eve. That's why I was asking myself whether it is possible to see fireworks on the ground from an passenger aircraft traveling at cruising altitude. If it's not possible at cruising altitude, maybe it's possible during take off or landing? Any estimates on the maximum altitude?

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It is certainly possible during takeoff and landing. I have more than once taken a trip during the US independence day holiday, and I remember once seeing fireworks on approach and landing during new year's eve in Europe. – phoog Jan 2 at 15:28
Note that the flight routes between Europe and China cross a lot of sparsely populated regions (Siberia, Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Mongolia.) If you're over one of these regions at midnight local time, you're probably out of luck. – Michael Seifert Jan 2 at 18:54
@phoog It's definitely possible in flight as well, given a clear sky. E.g. check out "Dubai Fireworks seen from the space" on Youtube. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jan 4 at 10:51
@DmitryGrigoryev Mind pointing out which video you meant specifically, I didn't come across any which were filmed from an actual airplane. – Nit Jan 5 at 10:18
up vote 35 down vote accepted

Some years ago I was a part of an operating cabin crew in a flight bound to Dubai, it was the time for one of Dubai's festivals.

Anyway, at the time we already started the descend and I was positioned at the back, the crew chief called me and asked me to take a walk around and ask people to sit because many are standing! the plane was a narrow-bodied McDonnell Douglas.

I went to the aisle to check, and they were standing because the fireworks were actually visible at that altitude (can't remember exactly, but it wasn't the cruising altitude nor it was very low). They were only visible from one side and people in the other side were standing to be able to see it from the other side's windows! I spend a few moments enjoying the few until I remembered that I was a crew member.

Bottom line, yes they are visible from high altitudes, and if the weather was clear I guess they would be visible from the cruising altitudes as well.

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You can definitely see them from cruise altitude. I've observed them numerous times from the cockpit. – casey Jan 2 at 21:47
@casey thanks for confirming that, I wasn't sure :) – Heidel Ber Gensis Jan 2 at 21:48
Don't all get up at once to look out the same side of the airplane: you'll upset the weight balance. – 200_success Jan 4 at 18:02
I doubt the weight of the passengers can imbalance a commercial airliner. The plane will be carrying people, their luggage, and extra freight cargo. – Nelson Jan 5 at 6:59
@nelson could still be a problem during takeoff or landing – Jan Dvorak Jan 5 at 11:02

I haven't personally seen fireworks from a plane, but there are quite a lot of videos available which do show fireworks, even from high altitudes.

This is a video taken at 36000 feet, which should be around cruising altitude. Bright blinking lights can be seen, but they do not really look like fireworks, more like camera flashes.

Here is a video showing fireworks at a lower altitude, where you can actually make out that it is fireworks.

Here is a video showing fireworks during takeoff, which is interesting, because you can see how the fireworks look at different altitudes.

And finally a video which seems to be taken at a lower altitude, which does get quite impressive around minute 2:30.

So the answer is yes, you can see fireworks, but I think it's mostly not that impressive, especially at cruising altitude. I would imagine that it will be even less impressive if you are not directly above a city, but just passing near it.

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Austrian Airlines does an annual Silvesterflug (New Year's Flight). This year it took off at around 22:50 and landed 00:30, flying rounds above central Vienna.

While this is possibly the best possible conditions giving that it's a flight specifically for looking at fireworks, I'm not sure how much you can actually see from above. The demand was sufficient to justify two flights this year. I believe it's done in either their Fokker 100 or Airbus A320 aircraft, so a pretty average window size.

2015 Aviation Newspaper/ 2013 Press Release

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Yes. I've seen them. You see them from above of course, so they look like flowers opening - expanding circles, kind of thing. Quite pretty.

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A lot of fireworks explode spherically so it shouldn't matter what angle you see them from. – David Richerby Jan 2 at 20:24
@DavidRicherby Still, that's what they looked like. I suspect the difference is that when viewing from ground level the effect of gravity is obvious and pronounced, whereas when viewing from far above only the horizontal motion is discernible. – A E Jan 2 at 22:10

I flew from Manchester to Southampton (both in the UK) on 5th November a few years ago. There were lots of fireworks going off for the whole trip (both in back gardens and formal displays) but from the air they were most unimpressive.

Interesting to see, but I wouldn't go out of my way to see it again.

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A few years ago, flying on a plane to Israel during the night, I idly calculated the minimum brightness of a light visible from cruising altitude.

The calculations are easy: brightness is proportional to inverse square of the distance, and 5 (stellar) magnitudes is 100 times the brightness, so something that is magnitude -11 (a bit fainter than a full moon) at 10 meters away will, in principle, be as bright as a fourth-magnitude (dim but very visible) star from cruising altitude.

I hadn't calculated further to see exactly how bright this is, but "as bright as a full moon, when viewed at 10 meters" is probably somewhere around candle level (certainly much less than a properly-pointed flashlight).

Naturally, your typical firework will be a good deal brighter; probably bright enough to be brighter (as visible from cruising altitude) than any actual (night-time) star.

However, it would also be far away, and thus rather tiny; the (typical) limit of human vision is about 1 angular minute (1/60 of a degree), which corresponds to about 3 meters from cruising altitude.

Thus, a firework that blooms to 10 meters in width will be 3 angular minutes across - basically a fat bright spot; you might not be able to tell it was a firework. I do not, however, recall how large a typical firework is; it might be larger.

Also, most fireworks are typically in cities, so they might be drowned out by the regular city lights (remember, we're talking about 3 meter resolution).

I can tell from personal experience that car headlights are very visible from cruising altitude, as little bright (and slowly moving) dots along the roads; of course fireworks are much brighter. I've never been on a plane at a time when fireworks would make sense, so I can't say I've ever seen any that way (if I did - which is well possible given how many random fireworks there are for stuff like somebody's birthday - I would not have recognized them as such).

During takeoff and landing, of course, this all becomes magnified; night-time landing at Tel Aviv airport is fantastic - coming in from the sea, one can easily see all the lights of the city. No fireworks that way either, but I can imagine that it would've been very pretty.

All of the above relates to night-time, incidentally. You would likely have a lot less chance during the day.

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Large fireworks explode at around 1000ft and cover a decent fraction of your field of view when you're standing on the ground. They're much bigger than 3m! – David Richerby Jan 2 at 20:30
Very interesting answer. With regard to the last paragraph: most fireworks displays, if not all, occur at night, because they are also harder to see from the ground during daylight hours. – phoog Jan 4 at 15:44

Took a night flight from London Heathrow to San Francisco about 15 years ago on Bonfire Night and saw flashes of fireworks over Britain. Quite distant even though we were probably not at full cruising height. They were pleasant to see but not much definition. However I do remember there were none as we flew over Ireland, and it was a few minutes until I realised it may be because Guy Fawkes was a Catholic. I also heard that fireworks may be outlawed in Ireland.

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I've been able to see ordinary street lights in small towns at altitude during transcontinental flights, so I imagine fireworks would be visible. They will be distant and small so may not be as entertaining as seen from the ground.

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