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Scribble Nibble's Last Flight
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- a story of HellFire-X, partly fact, partly fiction.

By Frank Whitby, NAR 83481, UROC member 372.

This story and the accompanying photos first appeared in August 2004, shortly after HellFire-X, on the UROC webpage, www.uroc.org.

Scribble Nibble lay in a heap. The motor casing was still in the fin can. The fins and motor-mount canister looked like they could still serve another rocket some day, but what would be the point? Shock cord snaked throughout the mess, tangled and twisted. The chute was still nicely bundled, pink against the salt. The airframe was mangled. The altimeter was a total loss. Ron will be sympathetic, but I imagine that he will appreciate that he can now sell me another altimeter. We just wanted to know how high it went. No way of telling now. High enough to destroy itself on impact, obviously. Didn't he say that the altimeter would survive any crash that we could dish up? Maybe his exact words were "any landing," not crash. Jack's lovely redwood nosecone was pulverized on impact. Little bits of yellow paint lined a shallow depression in the salt indicating where it had been. Maybe Mel or Dave would turn him another one. Maybe it's time to buy a lathe.

So much for our L1 certification. Jack was not taking it well. Away from the chit-chat of the flight line, a half-mile out on the salt flats, his emotions were coming to the surface. He had worked hard on Scribble Nibble. Dave and Mel had helped him build it in rocket class. He had brought it home and worked to finish it. He had added Bondo, he had sanded and glued and painted. He loved Scribble Nibble. Scribble Nibble, Small Brain, Tall Brain, Schkwonkle Bonkle. These were his guys. Scribble Nibble was his creation. The payload section was my addition and the altimeter was my loss. The loss of Scribble Nibble was his.

He had told me to be careful. He had implored me not to mess up his rocket. He had told me to follow the instructions. But Scribble Nibble didn't come with instructions. I thought and thought and thought again about the launch. I had been pre-occupied with the acceleration on an I200 motor. I had imagined the fins ripping off in the air. Dave said it was stout enough for a J motor, but still, I imagined it disintegrating on takeoff. I had not focused on recovery. I should have. Maybe I should have followed my instincts and not tried anything different than on the last flight. The larger chute and larger motor were the only changes I made. Why had the chute not deployed? Everyone in the club was convinced that we would certify. Neal said it would be a perfect flight. Scribble Nibble. Beautiful boost. No chute. No ejection at all. The awful realization that the chute was never going to open. Never. Wondering how far it went. Where did it land. What miracle might have saved it? No way. A total loss. The light was so blinding. The salt so white. The sky cloudless. The horizon limitless. My mind was racing, My head felt like it was spinning.

Yesterday, we had been going to HellFire. Driving out here to have fun. To experience our first really big launch. This was going to be fun. The truck was loaded. We had the trailer. We were cruisin'. Jack got out of school at noon on Friday. Nothing like year-round school to keep a third grader busy in summer. Jack had picked out the book-on-tape - The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke. The story would be long enough to take us out to Wendover and back again. The drive was only a couple of hours each way. We listened and drove. I was listening to the story, but my mind was on the launch. The narration was clear, but I was not thinking about kids in Venice stealing magical artwork and befriending a gruff but kindly detective. I was thinking about the launch. Jack was reading in the back seat. We didn't talk. He was reading and listening to the tape at the same time. Reading one book, listening to another. That's the way it always was. That's the way you travel with Jack. We were heading out to have some serious fun. We were cruisin'.

As we crested a rise along I-80 I strained my eyes to the North and West. It looked flat. It looked salty. The launch site must be somewhere out there. Still probably 20 miles away, maybe 40. We drove on. Surrounded by salt now, along I-80. Then, there it was. The exit to the salt flats. Bonneville Speedway. We took the little road to the edge of the salt. We left the road and entered the domain of Lake Bonneville. Munching on chips. Just cruisin'. Just cruisin'. "Wow, the salt is flat," I thought. "And it is really, really bright out here."

Bits of potato chip stuck between my teeth. I sucked at them and chomped on more chips. Those little bits of gooey chip. Just a pinch between my cheek and gum. No, that's wrong. That's Skoal. Remember how much my brothers used to chew. That made me puke when I was a kid hanging out at the fairgrounds. This wasn't chew, this was potato chips. Man, were those bits of chip buggin' me. I needed something to pick those chips out of my teeth. I fumbled with the odds-and-ends filling the storage bin between the seats. I wondered why I pile so much junk in that little bin? I felt around, searching with my fingers, looking straight ahead, scanning the bright white horizon, looking for trails of smoke. In the bin there were loose coins, dusty candy wrappers, a screwdriver, tire pressure gauge, and crusty chunks of who-knows-what food bits scattered in the bottom. Everything rattled and made little scratchy sounds as my hand searched through the bin. I needed something to pick my teeth. Something appropriate.

I looked out, searching for signs of rockets. I wanted to get to the launch site. This was EX day. We would just hang out and set up our camp while other people launched. The salt was blazing white and we were nearly there. We were anticipating some great flying.

I thought about how we had really changed the way we fly rockets. A year ago we were just popping off B and C motors in a field and hoping everything went O.K. Now we were gearing up for a full weekend of launching and were ready to certify. We had two big scratch built rockets, Scribble Nibble and Tall Brain. Two and one-half inch airframes. Each built from Dave's odd sized tubing and plywood. Not very impressive compared to some of the stuff we had seen, but huge in our eyes. We had two payload sections that could be switched between the two rockets to provide a variety of configurations. We wanted to fly them every which way on a variety of motors. We were ready to go.

My hands got sweaty on the steering wheel. The speedometer read 75. It hardly felt like we were moving. Surrounded by white with desert peaks all around. We might just as well have been sitting on a chair lift surrounded by snow. We might just as well have been floating. Floating towards our first big launch. We were going to see some big rockets. We were going to fly our big rockets. We were floating. It was difficult to gauge the passage of time. Only minutes passed, but surrounded by white, floating along, we were on Bonneville time. Driving fast, but floating. Floating at 75 miles per hour.

We could see vehicles in the distance. They were probably still 3 or 4 miles off. As we closed the gap, I could see the cars more clearly and could discern the general organization of the flight line. I saw some big vans and tents and figured that they must be near the LCO table. "There must be some vendors set up there," I thought. The light was blinding. Everything looked so clean.

My teeth were still bugging me. I had not found anything suitable for tooth picking, so my tongue worked overtime, sucking at annoying bits in my teeth. With my eyes fixed on the launch site, my hand finally settled on the only likely object in the storage bin. I grasped the handle and flicked the little push-knob forward. I heard a voice in the back of my head asking me, "is that a wise thing to do"? I pushed the voice back and side-stepped the question. Somehow, something didn't seem quite right. I did not focus on the object in my right hand. I should have.

I drove forward more slowly now, making straight for an opening in the line of cars and tents. It looked like a good place to park. I felt the handle in my hand as I picked at the chips stuck between my teeth. I struggled to rid myself of the torment.

I slowed down and pulled into our spot. We hadn't seen any launches yet, but we saw people prepping rockets on the away pads. I scanned the flight line from our future home for HellFire-X. It was great. As I opened the door, I heard a countdown. We stepped out as a Black and Yellow V2 on an N motor thundered off the pad. It rose slowly, perfectly, into the sky. The flame was huge, red. I scanned the heavens, waiting for some sign of deployment. I finally looked away from the V2 as its smoke trail petered out. I heard someone yell, "It's under chute". "Great flight," I thought.

I noticed for the first time how hot it was. But I also felt something cool on my neck. It felt like a cool trickle of water. I looked at the ground. I was standing on pure white salt. But it wasn't just white. There was something else. Something out of place. The contrast with the blazing white salt was remarkable. Red on white. Red spots. Red liquid. Red blood. Blood stained the salt at my feet. "Weird, where did that come from," I thought. I could feel crusty bits of chips clinging to my face. I wiped at my lips and chin. My hand and forearm came away a mess. Man was I bleeding. My shirt was a mess. What was going on here? Was that really my blood? Where had I been when I cut myself? How had it happened? When did I get cut? I felt a wicked stinging in lips and gums.

I still grasped something in my right hand. I glanced at it. I was holding a utility knife. The blade fully extended. The voice in my head became clearer. It was saying "Don't do that. Razor blades are sharp. Razor blades are not toothpicks".

The car radio seemed suddenly loud and the narrator's voice was grating. I lunged back inside the car to shut it off. I looked at the car seat. Blood. I knew I should have been paying more attention. HellFire. Hell something. Hell, I don't know what. "Why would I put a razor blade in my mouth while driving"? I think to myself, "That has to be one of the dumbest things I have ever done".

My mind shifts back to the mess at my feet. The sting in my lips returns. I can feel the nicks and cuts in my gums and cheek. I wonder if lacerating my mouth with a razor had really been the dumbest thing I had ever done. Maybe I had forgotten to put the ejection charge in the motor. Maybe the motor had malfunctioned. Maybe I had not assembled the motor correctly. Maybe the chute was packed too tight. My mind came to rest on this last point. Everyone had said to go up in chute size to insure a soft landing on the rock-hard salt. I had gone up alright. I had gone up from a perfectly adequate 36" chute to a 58" one. Scribble Nibble weighed about 3 and a-half pounds on the pad. I went over the numbers in my head. After burning an I200 motor, I bet it weighed even less. I wonder if we really needed such a huge chute. There was no wind, so who would care, right? It wasn't like it was going to drift far, so what the heck, just jam in the biggest chute you've got. Jam. That was the operative word. Jam. Remember, it's only a 2.5 inch airframe. Was it too tight? I slowly admit to myself that it probably was. Maybe I should have added a bit extra black powder for ejection. Thinking back, the stock powder that came with the motor kit seemed skimpy. Poor Scribble Nibble. Poor Jack. I had just sent his rocket on its last flight. Yesterday I picked my teeth with a utility knife while driving.

Author's note. Following the demise of Scribble Nibble, Frank and Jack Whitby successfully flew Tall Brain on a single-use Ellis Mtn. H50 motor for NAR L1 certification. The peak altitude was not recorded for lack of an altimeter… The exact cause of Scribble Nibble's crash will never be known for certain.

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