Two top fliers in the Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA) high-power rocket (HPR) club of which I am a member, and the only rocketeers having their own radio call codes, were Mike (505) and his friend Zupe (555).
Mike is a master amateur field engineer; an expert in field and launch systems preparation and operation, and in rocket design, construction, propulsion, and recovery; a calm, friendly, selfless man; and a fearless Level-3 HPR flier (the highest level of amateur rocketry certification).
Zupe is a Level-3 master amateur rocket engineer who built and flew the most advanced high-power rockets in the club—his machines inspired and motivated a supercharged evolution among hundreds of fliers in our club, and in other HPR clubs coast-to-coast.
When I was an advanced Level-2 flier, after Mike and Zupe got to know me and observed my development in creating a myriad of unique and increasingly capable HPR machines, systems and methods, they awarded me with radio code “525” and began to call me “Quarter.” Many other club members called me by my new moniker. This act of kindness ranks among the greatest of honors which I have received in my life.
Flying HPR rockets requires a lot of administration—permission is required by the land-owner, Fire Marshal, State Highway Patrol (in case interstate traffic needs to be stopped, to avoid “attractive nuisance” liability), Air-Traffic Control (all aircraft are sent a Notice to All Airmen restricting the rocketry airspace), and Insurance. TRA clubs provide these services for club members—but only for club launches. Therefore, Mike, Zupe and I had our own paperwork, to ensure that we could fly privately when we had time and when the weather was perfect: cooler (rocket fins work better in denser air), windless (so rockets land closer rather than further away), and cloudless (for safety reasons, rocketeers do not fly HPR rockets into clouds).
Mike, Zupe and I subscribe to the old-fashioned tenet that what one does on January 1 is what one does the rest of the year. So, of course, every year when conditions were flyable, on January 1 we got together at our “home” launch field (Richard Bong State Recreation Center) in an effort to fly one HPR rocket apiece.
It was in the 1990s, I forget the exact year, that it snowed a lot at Bong in December. Heading to the park on the interstate was mostly good, but it became somewhat “iffy” on the state road. Although plowed many times, park roads necessitated our four-wheel-drive vehicles to navigate.
We made it to the rocket field and began to set-up in what looked like the Arctic—deep snow everywhere. We spent much longer than I’d expected, digging out a 12-foot diameter circular pit with four-foot-“high” (deep, actually) packed snow walls—because we were in four-foot-deep snow. When completed, I was elected to fly first. We called in our FAA waiver—countdown started!
Dave and Zupe spent another hour configuring the mechanical, electrical and electronic systems needed to fly, and it took me just as long to prep my rocket for flight. We worked together to get the rocket on the rail, elevated for flight, electronic tracking and parachute-control altimeters activated and verified, igniter installed and continuity checked. Zupe four-wheeled to a near corner of the field, maybe a quarter mile away, to spot for aircraft violating the NOTAM clearing our airspace, and to assess where the rocket landed if it came in his direction. Mike and I stayed at the launch pad.
The flight was magnificent. The engine roar reverberated across the field and seconds later ricocheted back off of trees. The flight was straight and true because the weather was cold, the fins were relatively large, and there was no wind. Projected apogee at one-mile above ground level was reached (later confirmed by the pair of on-board recording altimeters). The drogue chute ejected at apogee and brought the rocket to a low terminal velocity in a flat spin, coming right back toward the pad. The main chute opened as it was programmed to do at 750 feet above ground level, and the rocket drifted about a football field’s length over the pad. It was a dream shot, a flight of beauty.
I had to go get my rocket. I put on my chest-high fishing waders and saw that my rocket was “right there” with its giant fluorescent pink parachute lying on the pure white snow. I headed out. The snow started at my knees (we were in the parking lot). When I hit the field the snow got to my waist. The snow was wind-blown powder, not packed, so it was possible for me to slowly slog ahead.
When I was “close” to the rocket (it is not easy to approximate distance when everything is pure white) something completely unanticipated happened. I took one more step and then suddenly could no longer see anything except pure white! I could not tell which direction was up, down, or sideways! All of my exposed skin felt as though it was on fire! I was sliding downwards!
Although I perceived and recall it in slow-motion horror, in reality my slip-fall-and-slide must have only taken seconds. I soon dug my way to open air and realized that I’d tripped on the berm of a depression carved by an old creek, hidden under a snow drift.
Mike called me on the radio, and asked if I was OK. I told Mike (Zupe heard) that I believe I was OK. I looked at my rocket, perhaps 30 feet away, and asked Mike if he thought it would survive there until spring. But, the materials needed to build the custom rocket, the reloadable motor, flight control electronics, and drogue and main chutes cost over $1000, took a lot of time to design and construct—and the rocket flew great. Before Mike could answer I told him I was going to get the rocket, and not to worry.
It took a LOT of time for me to wade 30 feet through chest-high powder, especially since I was very careful to avoid accidentally slipping into a snow horror show a second time. I reached the rocket and reassembled it as quickly as possible—my hands felt ablaze.
I had to make it 300 feet back, and nobody could help me. Mike was watching me through binoculars and asked if I wanted him to come out and help me. I told him not unless I truly need help. Fortunately, I had an apropos lesson taught to me by Mother Nature in the Sonoran Desert, in fourth grade. Suffice it to say that sometimes the only way to reach one’s destination is “step-by-step.”
It seemed the torture was endless but when I was perhaps thirty feet from the launch pad, Mike barreled through the snow to grab me and the rocket, and to help me back to the car to remove my waders, warm up and hydrate.
I have no recall concerning what happened later, though I know that I drove an hour back home to Chicago. So far, I’ve never again flown an HPR rocket in accumulated deep snow…
A New Year’s Tradition
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
January 1, 2021