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Parachute Duration Gone Wild
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By Chris Coffin NAR 83380

Rocket PicThis is a true story, recalled from my memory, that occurred on August 14, 2004. Some of the finer details of this day have been lost, though the important points will be with me forever. The story describes a crazy NARTREK parachute duration flight recovery effort that occurred at a Challenger498 rocket club launch in Katy, TX.

For those of you not familiar with NARTREK (National Association of Rocketry Training Rocketeers for Experience and Knowledge), it is a NAR sponsored program aimed at advancing the skills and knowledge of model rocketeers. It is a self-paced program with three different achievement levels: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Each achievement level is progressively harder than the one before it. As you progress through each achievement level, you send in your paperwork to the central office and the office sends you an achievement certificate and jacket patch. For more information on the NARTREK program, visit the NARTREK Rocket Skills Program page on the NAR Web site.

When beginning NARTREK, the first achievement level to tackle is the Bronze level. The NARTREK Bronze level has 4 requirements that must be completed before moving on to the Silver level requirements. In order to achieve Bronze level certification, the NAR member must complete each of the following:

  • 1. Parachute duration - Make a successful flight of 60 seconds duration using a motor of no more than "B" total impulse.
  • 2. Streamer duration - Make a successful flight of 30 seconds duration using a motor of no more than "B" total impulse.
  • 3. Two-stage flight - Make a successful flight of a two-stage rocket using at least an "A" motor in both the booster and the sustainer.
  • 4. Large motor flight ("D" motor or greater) - Make a successful flight of a rocket using at least a "D" motor.

On this fine August day, Sam Saenz, a fellow Challenger498 club member, was attempting the NARTREK Bronze level parachute duration at our local Challenger498 club launch. The rocket Sam was to use for this attempt was scratch-built by Sam and used a minimum-diameter vellum paper airframe, G10 fiberglass fins, and some monokote for decoration. The parachute he used was also homemade and appeared to be made of an ultra-thin silver Mylar. I think the chute may have been somewhere around 30 inches (it was big!). Remember that this rocket didn't weigh much and was built mostly from paper. After meeting Sam and talking with him for a while, I realized that he had built many of these paper rockets. Sam is big time into competition rocketry and even hosted a NAR sanctioned competition launch at our park not too long ago.


For this club launch, we were launching from our usual spot on the east side of the park and there was at least 3 quarters of a mile of park (including the softball fields) to the west. Since I was one of only a handful of NAR members at the launch, I offered to time the event for him. Sam uses his own very nice tower launcher that allows him to do away with launch lugs on his models. Once the tower launcher was setup, the rocket was loaded into the tower and then prepped for launch. Since Sam's rocket was extremely light-weight, he decided against using a "B" motor and used "A's" instead.

The first attempt on an Estes A motor resulted in a short erratic flight. One fin decided it didn't want to go for the ride shortly after takeoff. The fins on the rocket were only about 1" x 2", were clear (with a yellow tint) and were paper-thin. Believe it or not, someone actually found the fin in the grass after this flight near the tower it was launched from. This fin detachment was no problem though as the rocket was soon fixed and ready for another attempt.


The second flight on another Estes "A" motor (remember that for NARTREK a parachute duration flight can use up to a "B" motor) resulted in a very high altitude flight, especially for an "A" motor. Hmmm... I guess Sam was right in choosing an "A" motor. The rocket reached apogee and the parachute opened perfectly. The rocket, now under chute, started a slow descent while drifting towards the west. It came down to maybe an altitude of 50 feet or so and was about 300 feet down the field to the west when it appeared to catch a thermal. It wasn't horribly windy that day but this recovery didn't need wind. This rocket actually started to go back up! All the while it was still drifting slowly to the west. Before long, the rocket began to drift over the in-progress softball games at the west side of the park. The thing looked like a weather balloon floating along with its big silver parachute. It seemed to go up and down as it drifted, never really losing any more altitude than it gained as it began moving farther towards the west edge of the park. I think about this time I looked at the stop watch and it had reached 60 seconds already and we knew that the attempt was successful. We didn't know however if this thing would ever touch down.

Once it appeared that the rocket's course would take it out of the park, I started to walk (well... maybe a quick jog is more like it :-)) after it hoping that I could keep it in sight to get more bragging time for my fellow rocketeer. Little did I know that I would end up at the west fence of the park just as the rocket left my sight. I clicked the stopwatch at this time and if my memory serves me correctly, it read 2 minutes 37 seconds. I think the parachute duration attempt was successful? :-) After losing it behind a tree for a moment, I caught another glimpse of it through the bottom of the trees still drifting but close to the ground behind the fence. When I reached the fence I could see some cattle around and maybe 500-600 feet away I saw something shiny and silver flapping in the wind and thought that this had to be the parachute. The other unbelievable thing I noticed was that it appeared to be on the ground! This was very good; I actually had a visual as to where it was, which was a miracle at this point.

The only problem was that the fence that separated me from the field the rocket landed in was quite large and contained barbwire at the top. I didn't like the looks of the fence and knew my chances of climbing it successfully without injury were slim. I needed to find another way in there. By this time Rodger Jones, another Challenger498 club member, pulled up in his truck and said we should try to see if there was a street behind this field that would give us easier access. We hopped into Rodgers truck and proceeded down the two-lane street next to the park and looked for the next crossroad we could find. Sure enough, after about a half mile or so there was a road that led back to that area that ran parallel to the west side of the park. The distance to the road was probably just a little bit farther west than I estimated the rocket landed, but I imagined it wouldn't be too far.

The first place we ran into along the back road appeared to be a small ranch. Looking past the ranch through the trees I could see some cattle, so I knew we were close. Rodger and I pulled into the dirt drive that led up to the ranch and we noticed a couple near the front of the ranch. We got out the truck and introduced ourselves and told them what we were up to and then asked them if we could venture into the field behind the ranch. They said that the field behind them was owned by the people that lived one more house down the road. We hopped back into the truck and drove down a ways to the next house. As we drove by, I noticed something silver shining out in the front of the house along the left fence... there it is! All I could see was the parachute and it appeared to be caught in a barbwire fence about 150-200 feet from the road inside the property.

I realized at this time that it was luck that I saw it from the park side because on the park side it appeared to be on the ground. What I didn't know at that time was that the field the cattle were in sloped down. The rocket had actually gotten caught on this fence past the cattle field and into this guy's front yard. If it hadn't been for the big silver parachute (the one that got us into this crazy chase in the first place) and if it hadn't gotten caught on the top wire of this barbwire fence, I never would have seen it and we likely would have given up trying to look for it.

The front yard of this property also had a fence (can't recall what kind) that met with the road we were on and it was definitely climbable. I told Rodger to stop the truck we got a good visual and made sure this was our rocket. I was very excited to recover the rocket quickly at this point. I was so excited in fact that I decided against approaching the property owner. I jumped out of the truck and I hopped the fence with the intention of recovering the rocket quickly and getting out of there. Hopefully, whoever the property owner was would not mind that I was trouncing on their front lawn? :-) About 10 feet into the property I noticed a lot of dogs, maybe 3 or 4, up near the house and close to where I saw the parachute. They were barking like crazy. They weren't getting any closer however because it appeared they had they're own very large fenced in cage. I didn't know however if this cage had any outlets or places for them to get out into the yard so I decided to walk (I mean run!) back to the front fence (geesh! these people have invested a lot of money in fencing :-)). Once back in the truck, we decided at this time that it was best to try knocking on the door to get permission first before attempting recovery. I was all for this plan since I didn't feel like being dog food on this day.

As we pulled up into the long driveway and approached the house, we noticed a man washing an ATV near the garage. We got out and introduced ourselves and told the man that we needed to recover a rocket that had landed in his property. He seemed taken back by it for a moment, especially after I told him that I wasn't sure how much of the VX Nerve Gas had leaked out after its touchdown... LOL (no I really didn't tell him this ;-)). He told us to go right ahead but make sure that we close the latch on the gate when we leave (joy... another fence). Oh yeah and the owner assured me that the dog cage was secure and they wouldn't be able to get out into the yard :-). That's good since I had to walk right next to the cage and the rocket touchdown was fairly close to it as well.

I proceeded to the gate, unlatched it and walked over to where the parachute was. Woohoo! The airframe was still attached to the parachute! Meanwhile the dogs were barking up a storm 20 or 30 feet away. I proceeded at trying to get the rocket separated from the barbwire fence that was part of the many miles of fence this guy owned. The parachute had been blowing in the wind quite a while and at the same time was tangling its shroud lines in the barbwire pretty good. It took about 5 hurried minutes or so to finally get the thing free. Finally! I had the rocket in hand! I ran back to the gate, closed it, and then closed the latch. Lastly, Rodger and I thanked the property owner and headed back to the park.

When we returned to the launch site, we realized that our recovery effort probably consumed about half an hour or more of precious flying time... oh well. Sam was extremely surprised to see that we had found his rocket. We shared our adventure with everyone at the launch and then got back to launching some of our own stuff. A big thanks is necessary for Wendy Jones (Rodger's wife) who kept an eye on my youngest daughter Portia (who was too busy playing with the other kids to be bothered with a recovery effort) while Rodger and I recovered Sam's rocket. To view all of the pictures taken at the Challenger498 launch that day, visit the Challenger498 Web site, click the Photo Gallery button on the left, and then click on the picture next to the CRC Launch 8/14/04. Sometime later I signed the NARTREK bronze level certification document stating that the flight lasted for more than 60 seconds... Oh yeah! Try almost 3 minutes! A bit later i n the day, Sam handed me one of his scratch-built paper rockets very similar to the one that we recovered for him as appreciation for the recovery effort. I was greatly honored by this and I now proudly display this rocket in my rocket room here at home.

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