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Rocketry Madness or Just Mad About Rockets
…A Reintroduction to the Hobby
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Finished KitsBy Joe Policy

When I found out I would be working in Germany, I left all of my rocketr related items in storage back in the U.S. I was not sure if model rockets were legal in Germany and I did not want to take a chance on breaking any laws. So, for the first five years of my European experience, I was without any rockets. But then, the bug hit me…hard.

I have a love/hate relationship with rockets. I love to fly them, but I am not overly excited about building them - especially the sanding and the filling and the fillet shaping. Also, I really do not like finishing them. If all of my rockets were "ready to fly", I would be a happy camper. For me, flying is the biggest reward.

Unfortunately, the RTF rockets are usually plastic with cheap decals that look great from a distance, but look more like toys from close up. Don't get me wrong, there are some pretty sharp RTF kits from Quest and Estes that are basically ready to go right out of the box. And, if you need a quick fix for the smell of black powder, these rockets are certainly for you. I will always be a kit builder and my technique has improved over time. But, as with all techniques, I can always stand some improvement. I even have a few scratch builds under my belt.

There seems to be an expansion going on in the rocket industry these days. Before I started getting deeply re-immersed into the hobby, I really only knew about Estes and Quest. But, I started looking into forums and started hearing about companies like FlisKits, Custom, Cycline, Q-Modeling, Art Applewhite, Sunward and a host of others. All of these companies had innovative designs and a wide variety of rocket goodies to choose from.

This did not even count the big power companies like LOC/Precision, BSD and Aerotech. Honestly, I did not even know there were engines larger then "E" up until a couple years ago . Some of the companies had even gone in and out of business while I was putting more time into other hobbies. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do.

So, to re-introduce myself to the hobby, I started by ordering the FlisFleet 2002 from FlisKits back in the Summer of 2003. There are 12 kits in the 2002 version of the FlisFleet, I figured that would be enough to get me started. While I was waiting for my fleet to arrive, I went out and picked up some hobby building supplies. Now, when you live in Germany, it is just not that easy. Words like sand paper, wood glue and hobby knife are not in the local vocabulary. However, I was able to find everything I needed at various locations. No one stop shopping at Wal*mart over here!

Kits (only about a 10th of them)Once my fleet arrived, I got started on the build process. I started with the Pheord because I really like the looks of this little "flying" saucer. Then the Flea, the Deuce's Wild, the Corona and so on until I had every rocket completely built. This took me about a month. The build process was quite an eye opener for me. I did not know that nose cones could be made out of balsa, and on top of that, the fins had to be traced and cut out by hand?!? Hadn't FlisKits heard of die cut? It seemed like a lot of work and at the time, I did not want to spend all my hours building when to me, all the fun is in flying. And, I still had to paint my fleet!

I think the reason I liked the Triple Threat and the Pheord so much was that they required no finishing. But, I had a garage full of naked rockets that all need covering up. So, I took more trips out on the economy with new words like sanding sealer, primer and spray paint. Again, I was able to gather up my supplies and before too long, all of the rockets had something resembling a paint job. Some were better then others, but they were definitely passable, at least from a distance!

It was time to send up some rockets, but all of my launch items were in storage back in the U.S. So, I decided to buy some new items via mail order like launchers, launch pads, wadding, igniters and motors. But, there was a problem. After 9/11, the airlines were a bit skittish over having things like black powder motors and igniters in their aircraft. No vendor would ship motors to me overseas even though I had a U.S. address in addition to my German address. It took some time, but I was able to find some ground transportation. Of course, going by ground meant by sea. They must have used a canoe for the first order because it took over 3 months for the motors to arrive. Finally, I had everything I needed except for good weather. It was now Winter in Europe and that means lots of windy, rainy days. My first launch with my new rockets would have to wait until Spring.

I used my down time to get a membership in Tripoli and NAR. In some ways, that was a mistake because it started opening my eyes towards the high powered portion of our hobby. But, I was able to resist the lure of HPR and I was able to concentrate on the low power stuff. I knew that the big stuff would be in my future when I returned to the states. All I knew about HPR was that is could get very expensive. More on that later.

Spring came late in 2004, but I was ready for launch day. I gathered everything together and went out to what is now my favorite launch site, an old Air Force base. No trees for two square miles, nice and quiet and no aircraft flyovers to worry about. The first rocket I launched was the Pheord and all was well except for the fireball that shot out of the top of the saucer and landed on the ground. Fortunately, the grass was a bit damp from the morning dew, so there were no fires. I added a fire extinguisher to the list of items to bring to my next launch.

I was able to launch all 12 (14 if you count the three Triple threats) rockets that day with varying degrees of success. It is somewhat difficult launching by yourself since you have to do all the prep, launch, tracking and recovery for each rocket. It is a great workout with all the running you end up doing, particularly on a windy day. But, although I was quite tired, I was quite happy that I was back to launching rockets.

I was lurking pretty heavily in TRF forums, trying to learn as much as I could about the hobby and what I was missing. I had looked at rec.models.rockets, but that seemed to be a place for bashing and there was no real Q&A going on there. I purchased quite a few kits in 2004, but I rarely built any of them. Instead, I took measurements of the kits and submitted RockSim files to EMRR.

While I was in TRF, I ended up being a pen pal with one of the members. This person informed me about the Freedom launch in Orangeburg over Labor Day weekend and invited me to come down. I had never been to an official launch, so I accepted the invitation.

My friend told me that it would be possible to get an L1 certification at the launch and encouraged me to try. I thought he was crazy, I had never even seen a HPR rocket up close and personal let alone build one. But, the more I thought about it, the less crazy it sounded. I purchased a PML Ariel and Tethys and got them built in relatively short order. I was a first time epoxy user and I did end up making quite the mess. As I found out, the stuff is like thin honey until it sets up. One time, I let it stand in the cup (plastic Dixie cup) to see if it would get stiffer as it sat. It melted the cup and I had epoxy everywhere. There was lots of chiseling and sanding needed to clean up the mess. Live and learn!!

I finished the rockets and I mailed them along with support equipment and motor casings to my friend. I then prepared to head to the USA over the long weekend. The morning I was to leave, I received the news that the launch was cancelled due to Hurricane Frances. Undaunted and with a non-refundable airplane ticket, I went anyway.

I went ahead and studied for the tests on the long flight over. I figured I could take the written portion and then try the launches at a later date. Fortunately, my friend was able to get hold of a Tripoli Prefect who was L2 certified and he agreed to come out on a Saturday to let me launch and attempt certification.

Having never even seen the flame of an HPR before, it was a site to behold. The H128 motor for the first flight was incredible on the Ariel launch, but nothing compared to the smoke and flame of the J350 launch as the Tethys made its way into the air. I was still picking my jaw up off the ground when both birds landed. Both flights were successful and I had my certification. To heck with Hurricane Frances!!!

Upon returning to Germany, I had really had been bitten by the rocketry bug. But, due to job commitments and the ever worsening weather, I had only a few more launches in 2004 and none of those would be HPR.

Which brings me to 2005. Long Winters are a bad thing when all you have to do is sit in front of a computer and surf the net. In my case, surfing rocketry vendors. I started buying rockets and rocket related equipment en-masse. I purchased every FlisKits that was available. And every Semroc, Squirrel Works, Sunward, Rocketpad, Q-Modeling, Estes, Quest, Custom and the list goes on and on.

PartsAnd, I did not stop with rockets. I also started getting accessories. Motor mounts, body tubes, basswood, plywood, birch and balsa for fin stock. Nose Cones of all shapes and sizes, launch lugs, centering rings of all sizes and materials, baffle kits, motor casings from Dr. Rocket, Aerotech and now Rouse Tech. Decals from Excelsior, parts packs from Thrustline, fin alignment jigs from bmiBay and video cameras from Boostervision. The list goes on and on again.

I downloaded every Apogee newsletter. I downloaded every plan on the JimZ and Ye Olde Rocket Shoppe sites. I started buying vintage rockets off of E-bay, some built, some not. I started to fill up an entire spare bedroom with just rockets and related items. The folks at the Post Office knew me by name. And stuff just kept coming in.

I finally sat back to take a look at what my temporary insanity had done. I now had over 350 kits and enough spare parts to build at least another 200 complete scratch built rockets. I still cannot believe it all started with just 12 rockets. Up until 2003, I had no rocket related items locally.

My attention stayed with the LPR stuff since I was a little unsure about launching the big stuff in Germany. I am sure you can, but I it helps if you speak the language so that you can be sure you are following every rule and regulation that covers the launches. My Ariel and Tethys sit quietly in the corner waiting for the time when then will again take to the skies.

PartsYou would think that I would have learned my lesson and backed off on the purchasing of new items since I already had more then I could possibly build. However, that was not to be so. I still read forums waiting for a vendor to announce a new kit and then pounce on that vendor so I can be first in line or as close as possible. I have a large number of low numbered kits from those vendors that number their initial models and those kits are safely locked away, never to be built. Of course, that leaves the problem of actually having a kit to build, so naturally, I have to buy additional kits.

I have built quite a few rockets so far this year and I have sponsored 6 launches. The Boy Scouts have been great participants in the launches as well as a youth club on base. And, I have even did launches for my German neighbors who are just awestruck with every launch. There are no hobby shops for miles (or kilometers) around, so many of my friends have never been introduced the the hobby.

I think the most fun I have had so far this year is a coffee cup launch I sponsored. I purchased 16 FlisKits Decaffeinators and 8 Espressos and let the kids have at it with adult supervised hot glue guns. It was amazing to see the number of variations the kids came up with in the decorating of their rockets. Launch day was amazing with over 40 spectators and coffee cups flying all over the place. There were a few broken rockets, but the beauty of the design is that repairs are easy. The kids could not get their fill of rockets. There are now many more new rocketeers who now see model rocketry as something more then a spectator sport. On a personal level, I like having people who are 1/4 of my age retrieving rockets from way down range...and they are happy to do it!

KitsSo, is the madness over? Not at all. Although my purchases have slowed in the last few months due to other commitments, I will have enough rockets to keep building and flying well into my retirement some 20 years from now. I will rotate back to the states sometime early next year, and I am really looking forward to attending some big launches - without hurricanes of course. I also look forward to not paying $25.00 for a pack of "D" motors. It will be nice to just head down to a Hobby Lobby or a Wal*mart and get what I need on the spot without having to wait three months.

Bottom line, am I crazy? Possibly. Did I go a little overboard? Probably. Was it excessive? Definitely! However, I have no regrets. I think you can have as much fun with 1 rocket as you can with 300. Model rocketry is a safe, fun and satisfying hobby that can also challenge and engage you. If you have kids, get them involved. If you don't have kids, find some kids to get involved. I believe the rewards of pressing the launch button and sending a rocket skyward far outstrips the pleasure of pressing a button on a game controller.

I continue to watch for new innovations in our hobby. With so many vendors coming up with new and exciting kits each year, I will be testing the limits of my wallet far into the foreseeable future. I do not think I will ever reach a point where I will ever enjoy the sanding and painting portion of my hobby. It just takes too long when there is a perfectly good naked rocket that needs to be launched! However, it is a necessary evil and one that I am willing to put up with so I can maximize the enjoyment of my hobby.

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