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By Bill Eichelberger

I built and flew my first rocket as a BAR in 1994 after discovering a rack of heavily discounted rockets at a hobby shop closing in Arlington, Texas, but it would be more than six years before the hobby really took hold. After our initial October, 1994 launch, my brother-in-law began flying on a semi-regular basis with the DARS club. I'd get occasional mailings from him containing copies of the newsletters and pictures of his rockets, but after an initial flurry of building the kits my wife snuck out and bought for me at the hobby shop as Christmas gifts, I settled into an annual launch with my son on a day that the rest of the family went on a day trip to a furniture store. (I called these the "Better than going to Cherry House launches".)


By 2000, I had continued with the occasional yearly launch with Sam and his friends, flying some of the semi-RTF kits that I had picked up for him over the years. We experimented with aerial photography with the Estes AstroCam, (once getting an almost recognizable picture of a curb and some grass,) flew an Estes Bail Out which coincided with Sam's interest in GI Joe's, and made some flights with an Estes Manta, which was the closest then-current kit that I could find to my beloved Estes Condor of old. While I enjoyed these launches and continued to keep flight logs of them, there was nothing about them that really put any teeth in the rocketry bug. That all changed in early 2001.

After a decade in Texas, Tony's family had relocated to Akron, Ohio, and we arranged to pay them a visit over the President's Day weekend. Tony had mentioned that this was also the weekend of his club launch with the Tri-City SkyBusters, the club he had joined after the move. The launch was scheduled for that Sunday, and he asked that I bring something along to fly. Intrigued, I went to the basement storage room where I had last seen my rockets. What I found almost killed the hobby for me then and there.

The previous year's flying had been pretty rough on the tiny fleet that I had assembled over the previous six years. The Estes Bail Out and AstroCam had both fallen victim to broken fins on the plastic fin units, while the Estes Manta had died a warrior's death after too many hard streamer landings. The body tube was bent at a 45 degree angle and it didn't take much imagination to see that it wouldn't fly again. Digging a little further, I found several half completed projects from the hobby shop closing, none of which were close to being considered ready for flight duty. The Estes Super Vega had been started in 1995, but relegated to the storage room after I realized that rocket construction and toddlers didn't co-exist well. The bag it had been stored in was a mass of splintered balsa and smashed tubes due to it being stored UNDER some other junk. Some of the parts like the nose cone, cardstock pieces, and decals looked like they could be re-used, but at the time I had no idea where to find any of the other replacement parts locally. The Estes Greyhawk was closer to completion and hadn't been as badly stored, but with only a few hours before we left for Akron, there was no time to finish it. The glider for the Estes F-22 Interceptor was finished, but the sustainer was still in pieces and the nose cone nowhere to be found. My initial interest in the possibility of flying with Tony vaporized right there.

The weather began to change on us by the time we hit Columbus that afternoon. What had been a comfortable sweater day had begun to change into something far less hospitable, and by the time we stopped for gas in Columbus, I found myself having to alternate hands on the pump because of a twenty degree drop in the temperature. I had been bummed about showing up with an empty range box, but as the weather worsened, I began to be convinced that no one could be crazy enough to launch in weather conditions like these.

Several hours later we arrived safely in Akron and ordered pizza. Tony was disappointed that I had shown up empty handed, but I explained that nothing in my basement had been in any shape to consider bringing. In his basement we looked over his growing fleet, some of which I remembered from his pictures over the years, but some that I had never seen the likes of before. He had some cool kits that were even then becoming hard to find classics; the Estes Strike Fighter, Solar Warrior, and Explorer Aquarius. He also had some that looked like giant mutant copies of designs I could vaguely place; an LOC Lil Nuke, Aura, and Stovi. Something about them looked familiar, but they were so huge that I couldn't imagine them getting off of a launch pad. As we talked I told Tony that I had been disappointed in the kit selection I'd found at our local hobby shops in the past few years. Plastic fin units and sticker decals left me cold and I longed for the days when I could walk into a store and come out with an Estes Condor, Rogue, or USS Atlantis. On a whim, we decided to check Ebay to see what rockets like those were selling for, if they were selling at all.

While we didn't find any of the rockets I mentioned for sale on Ebay, we did find enough vintage stuff to whet my appetite. The prices were pretty spectacular, but it was comforting to know that somewhere the kits of my youth still existed. Again bowing to whim, I plugged the name "Estes Condor" into a search on Google. What happened next was far from what I expected and more than I could ever have hoped for.

The search led us to Sven Knudson's Ninfinger site, where most of the catalogs of my youth had been scanned for the rocket flying public's enjoyment. Knowing for sure that the Condor was in the 1977 catalog, I clicked on that heading and began "paging" through my old friend. Within pages I'd found the Condor pictured, with its length and tube diameter listed next to it. Now I was excited. I figured that I remembered the lines of the kit well enough that I could replicate them from memory. Maybe not an exact copy, but close enough for me. I began totaling up what I'd need, white and red paint, red and black Sharpie Markers, balsa, a body tube, and a nose cone. Tony claimed we could find a lot of the stuff I'd need in a store downtown the next day. I was pumped, and would have considered the evening a success even if Tony had not suggested typing "Estes Condor plans" into the search engine.

But he did.

I recognized the scanned instructions for the Condor immediately. As a kid I had been a pack rat of almost mythic proportions, and had managed to save the instruction sheets to everything I had built in an old Columbia House Record Club mailer. The mailer had been stuffed into an old couch in my parent's basement family room, and years later when I came home to find the couch gone, I felt only a slight tug of remorse for my collection of rocket stuff. Now, almost twenty years later, that slight tug was pulling like an Allis-Chalmers tractor, and I realized how much I missed all of it. Paging through the Condor instructions, I felt an instant familiarity with what had been a well-thumbed sheet in my younger years and vowed not to throw away my kid's childhoods when the urge inevitably struck. Tony and I then made our way back to JimZ's homepage and spent much of the rest of the night discovering the wealth of information out there. Most of my favorites were there from both the Estes and Centuri camp and I sent link after link to my e-mail account at home, lest I not be able to find my way back to the site. Out in the family room, my wife and sister-in-law chatted, oblivious to what was taking place on the other side of the house. Probably just as well.

After lunch on Saturday, our wives and kids went outlet shopping, leaving us on our own for a few hours. Tony had already gone to the trouble of scouting the local hobby shops, and had come up with a trio of promising ones. One was closed, (who ever heard of a hobby shop closed on a Saturday,) but we found what we were looking for at the second one. They had an impressive selection of building supplies, and I recognized the lines of the PNC-50Y immediately. When I left the shop, it was with everything that I'd need to recreate the Condor except some elastic and a parachute.

On the way to the next stop, I had a great idea. I'd pick up a couple of small, easy to assemble rockets for my son and I to build and fly the next day. The next stop happened to be an incredible train shop that happened to have a small rocketry section. The selection was very thin, but I lucked out and found two likely candidates; an Alpha IV and a Rattler 7, both Estes kits and both built with plastic fin units and colored body tubes. I borrowed Tony's CA when we got back to the house and had the rockets finished by the time we left for dinner.


Sunday dawned cold, the bone chilling type. Luckily we had realized that this was a possibility and made a run to K-Mart the previous night for gloves and winter hats, neither of which Sam or I had come up north with. The drive to the field took the better part of an hour, and I wondered why anyone would make that kind of a drive when there were perfectly good parks all over the city going unused. (At the time, a D-engine was still my idea of high power. That idea had but minutes to live.)

Once we were safely out of the city and on the turnpike, the scenery changed quickly from rolling hills to largely flat farmland. After a trip down a small, two lane road, we turned into a driveway, which we followed out to a cornfield. There we found a scattering of other hardy souls parked in a loose line. Just out from the parking area was the flight line, where were gathered some of the other SkyBusters. Several hundred feet to the North, trucks and cars drove by on the turnpike. This would have normally seemed like plenty of room, but I had gotten a look at some of the rockets on hand as we drove in. They made Tony's Stovi look almost quaint by comparison. Tony greeted several of the other fliers and after only a few minutes of talking, retired to my van to prep his rocket. Sam wanted to fly "his" Rattler 7 first, so we loaded it with a borrowed B6-4 and took it to the pads. The Rattler flew well, but suffered a separation at ejection. We managed to recover the bottom half of the rocket, but never found the small upper tube. This was my first experience with one of Estes "Almost RTF" rockets. Sadly it wouldn't be my last. Tony made several flights on the day, with the highlight being his LOC Aura on an F14-4. I was seriously impressed by the F, but it was only the start. I borrowed another motor, this one a C6-7, for my Alpha IV's flight. It went every bit as high as I expected and looked as if it might land a county or so over, but I began trekking after it anyway. The walk out to the rocket wasn't bad because I had the wind at my back and I made the ¼ mile trek rather quickly, but then I had to walk back. This took some time and I walked backward for a good part of the trip to keep from being serrated by the knife-like wind. Tony offered more motors when I returned, but I decided not to push my luck again. Truth be told, I didn't want to walk into that wind again; ever.

After I returned, all four of us decided that we had had enough for the day. Tony walked out and said his goodbyes to his fellow Sky Busters, then came back to the van to ask if we could stay for one more flight. It would be worth it, he promised. It would make his Aura flight look like Sam's Rattler 7. We all agreed that his sounded like it would be worth seeing and huddled in the van with the heater on high until the launch. I don't remember what was flown or what it was flown on, only that it looked like something that should have been mounted under the wing of a military aircraft and sounded like someone ripping a giant piece of canvas violently in half. The rocket was out of sight before we were even aware that it had left the pad. The neck-snapping acceleration left me searching the skies with my mouth agape, hoping to see a parachute and all the while wondering what would happen if it drifted out toward the turnpike. As it turned out, this would not be cause for concern. The big bird came in ballistic, whistling slightly as it stormed in west of the parking area. The impact wasn't the incredible explosion that I had been expecting, but more of a muted "whump". There was a moment of respectful silence, and then the crowd began walking out to the impact site, all respect forgotten as they joked the whole way. At the crater nothing was recognizable, and it was obvious that the frozen ground had won the battle. Some walked around picking up pieces. Others theorized as to what had caused the mishap. The guy who had suffered the loss seemed to be taking it all in stride. We helped with what we could before retiring to the van to begin the trip home.

My head swam as I drove home. I found it funny that I had come on the trip with only limited interest in the hobby, but was heading home a rabid BAR who couldn't wait to get to his own computer to see what else was out there. In my immediate future I could see the restoration and completion of the rockets in my basement, but beyond that I wasn't sure of anything.

Except that my wife was not going to be happy.

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