A long time ago, in a lifetime far away, I flew my first rocket.
I guess I read an ad in one of my Marvel comic books (probably The Incredible Hulk, he was my favorite) for Estes Rockets. I would have been around ten years old, making it 1962.
I ordered up a kit and the requisite engines and put the thing together. My neighbor Mr. Skip Gatschet (TWA pilot and all around cleverdick) helped me build the “launch pad” and oversaw the first flights. Pretty cool!
It wasn’t long before my deviant mind found alternate uses for these little rocket motors. I hollowed out an old Pinewood Derby car and made a hole in the ass-end for the motor. Being an inquisitive young lad, I wanted to learn the effects of high-G’s on living creatures, like worms and mice. I never got to mice, but the worms…meh, no big deal, no damage. The “vehicle” performed as you might expect: It zigged and zagged all over the ground. Luckily, no one was injured!
A few years later I was in my early teens and the rocket thing came back into my life. Loving all things German (note my section on Volkswagens), I bought a model of a V2, built it up and flew it several times. I was the hit of the neighborhood, a budding “mad scientist” who loved smoke, flames and explosions.
We lived very close to a fairly large expanse of open territory, which was actually the property of the Sun ’n Surf country club, our local swimming pool. They had a tennis court that no one ever used and that was my launch site. The last flight of my V2 was particularly exciting. I launched it on a hot summer day when the pool was filled with kids and others. Mind you, I thought I was far enough away to be safe, but the rocket shed a fin or something and, instead of going vertical, it went horizontal. Straight over the heads of the oblivious swimmers and into woods that abutted the property. A search ensued, but the rocket was never found. No more rockets for me!
Fast forward almost 50 years- I happened to re-aquaint myself with one of the old neighbor kids who had idolized me back in the day, Terry Smemo. In the course of or conversations, he mentioned he was still into rocketry. After seeing his stable of rockets and going down to the Kloudbusters rocket club launch site near Argonia, Kansas (SW of Wichita), I was “re-ignited” about rockets.
In modern amateur rocketry, there is a sanctioning organization, the Tripoli Rocketry Association, which I joined, as well as the aforementioned Kloudbusters club. Tripoli tests for three levels of knowledge and proficiency in launching rockets, Level 3 being the highest. It is pretty much an unlimited class, where if you can build it, you can launch it. Have you ever seen “Large Dangerous Rocket Ships” on the Discovery channel? Now, that’s some high-powered stuff!
I am a level 3. Your rockets are only constrained by your imagination and your bank account. I have seen all kinds of rockets, seen altitudes of over 20 miles achieved and seen some pretty horrendous (and dangerous) failures. Experienced a couple of my own!
My first new age rocket was dubbed “Rocket 88”. After all, I do run Ralph Spoilsport Motors! It was a kit and I had expert help from my mentor, Mr. Smemo, in building her. I launched her three times, earning my Level 1 cert on the first try. The scond flight was also a success. Her third flight resulted in the failure of the parachute and doomed her to be broken up as she plowed into the wheat field.
I rebuilt her, as only the top half had been destroyed. The rear section with the fins was intact. So I designed a longer rocket with electronic deployment and named her Rocket 88 2.0. I earned my Level 2 cert with her in Argonia.
Terry and I had gone to Midwest Power, an annual launch in north central Illinois. I launched R88 2.0 on a very powerful motor. She failed, the airframe being too weak for the more powerful engine. There was a spectacular destruction about 600 feet off the ground. I managed to gather up almost all the sad, broken pieces, including the electronics. The only thing I couldn’t find, oddly enough, were the fins!
There would be no rebuilding of THIS rocket, so I determined to build a new rocket for my Level 3 attempt. I bought another kit, a big one. The airframe was made of fiberglass and very strong. It would take a lot to destroy this one!
Standing 11 feet tall, this was an impressive rocket. I named her the Hot Rod Lincoln, keeping with the automotive theme. It had the capability of flying on an O motor, the most powerful, commercially available motor.
Allow me to digress for a moment and explain the alphabet designations for rocket motors. Naturally, they start at the lowly A motor, a small motor not much more powerful than a bottle rocket. However, each subsequent alphabetical increment doubles the power of the motor. So a
B is twice as powerful as an A, a C twice as powerful as a B and so on. By the time you get to an
O motor, you’re talking serious power.
For my Level 3 flight and the maiden launch of the Hot Rod Lincoln, I used an M motor, still a powerful engine. I had rigged a camera on the rocket and was able to get a great video of the flight. You can see it here. She topped out just shy of 6000 feet. Pretty cool!
My second flight of the HRL, I determined to use an N motor. At the Argonia Rocket Pasture, there are several pads available for launches, the more powerful, dangerous rockets being delegated to the “away” pads, way out about a quarter of a mile away from Launch Control. That’s where I launched from. I had the camera again strapped to the side of the rocket.
Perfect launch. Beautiful flight. Recovery was successful. Three miles in the air! I expected a great video. But, when I got to the rocket on the ground, the camera was not there! It had been ripped away by the tremendous launch forces, never to be found again...
I intend to continue flying rockets. It’s a true thrill to watch something you’ve built take off into the air. But, my launches will probably be few and far between, at least for my Hot Rod Lincoln. N and O motors can cost $1000. That’s a pretty expensive rush. But, sometime in the near future, it’s gonna get that O motor. And my new rocket cam will be mounted a lot sturdier! Stand by for news!