Who Am I? How’d I Get Here?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong interest in science, aviation, rockets, all things “techy”, and anything mechanical. Right brained? That’s me in so many ways.

Years ago I was heavily involved in model aviation. I built and flew mostly e-powered planes – everything from mostly pre-built kits all the way to scratch-built sport flyers that I dreamed up on my own or with the help of others. By the time I had a toddler, infant, new job and a house in my life, it became too time consuming and too spendy of a hobby for my young family. So I reluctantly put it aside except for the occasional dalliance in cheap RTFs from time to time; always with the intention of getting back to it “soon”. It’s been a decade, we’re way past soon.

As my son approached the ripe and hyper-kinetic age of 9, I began searching for something we could do together that would be fun, intellectually stimulating and teach him the value of learning to create things with the power of your own mind, hands and effort.

He’s always enjoyed seeing and asking questions about the remainder of my fixed-wing squadron gathering dust in the cellar … none of which are currently airworthy (…but all need “just little work” to get flying again). He does manage to keep those cheap quad-prop drones in the air for a little while, but still doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination to handle control reversal, or the more dynamic flight characteristics of fixed-wing aircraft. Further, decent hobby-level planes are on the pricier end of what I’m willing to spend the cash to buy, and invest the time in building and frequent repair necessary to keep them airworthy right now. Never mind stomaching the inevitable spectacular crashes that come with the process of a young boy learning to control a distant, fast-moving model with no brakes, desperately fighting the irresistible pull of gravity and whims of the wind in 3D space in a delicate dance of thrust, lift and drag.

Then, one day while picking up supplies at a Michael’s Crafts for some project or other at home, I happened to notice they had a small supply of Estes starter kits and motors. Memories of my young-self poring over Estes catalogs at about my son’s age came flooding back. I also remembered with a pang that I never did get to fly any of those rockets I had been pining over on those full-color glossy pages all those years ago. Full-on nostalgia moment … I’m suddenly a boy at the five and dime store with his allowance burning a hole in his pocket.

Without hesitation, I grabbed a $30 starter kit off the shelf, and a few packs of motors @ $10 each from the nearby display and headed for the cashier line – MY boy was NOT going to be deprived of this experience! I’m pretty sure I even remembered to buy whatever it was that I had gone there for originally, but I couldn’t guarantee that…

I knew in my soul that this was going to be the perfect hobby for us to dive into together. Very low bar to entry, and LOTS of room to expand into as we gain skills and experience, and no need for advanced hand-eye coordination to prevent expensive disasters.

When I got home, my son was like a rocket on the pad with a hot igniter in the tube when I showed him what I’d bought. My wife winced at the fact that I had spontaneously spent $60 on “some new toy” (some day she’ll get used to this!), but the excitement displayed by the boy as he tore open the package and started looking at how things go together changed the mood quickly.

That was late June 2018 – just over a year ago as of this writing. Through that summer and until the New England weather turned unfriendly to launching unguided missiles into the Northerly winds, we decorated the trees and rooftops surrounding a schoolyard near our home with misguided missiles as we gained valuable experience in model building, motor selection, flight-path estimation, judging wind conditions both at ground level and aloft, parachute packing and what happens to that parachute when you forget your ejection wadding, or the meaning of the term “lawn dart” – what happens to your rocket when you have a nose cone that’s a bit too snug to eject at all. We discovered all sorts of interesting failure modes – Murphy is a creative guy, and gremlins are definitely as real in rocketry as they are in aviation. Every launch a leap of faith that it’ll ever be seen again. Every launch an opportunity to learn something new.

We learned what a great ice-breaker flying rockets in the park can be. People LOVE watching rockets fly. It was a rare trip to the field that didn’t attract a gaggle of excited local kids asking questions, getting involved in the action, and being reminded to please not step on the rockets and stay 15′ from the pad. Even the parents would occasionally work up the courage to actually talk to a stranger and ask me questions about what we were doing and how we got started in it.

We learned lessons about attachment and how to let go. We learned that it’s OK to buy a kit, put the effort into building and decorating it … only to have it become a dangling ornament 50′ up a tree you don’t dare try to climb, or land gently on the school’s “spaceport” (the roof) after its first launch. It’s gone. It’s final. It’s OK! We learned something and can build another one!

The cost of learning with low-power rockets is pretty minimal. With every build, re-build or repair you’re learning new skills and improving techniques. With every launch, you learn more about what it takes to heave an aerodynamic chunk of flaming mass impossibly high into the sky, and hopefully get it back to do it all over again. When a model makes its last flight, well … it was only a few dollars for the kit, and not a second of wasted time for the build. And now you get to build another one, only better this time! Priceless!

It turns out the modeling skills and techniques I obtained building airplanes carries over well to rocketry. I very quickly have become hooked on the whole experience. I began devouring everything I could about the hobby via YouTube videos, blogs such as this, forum posts, magazines and chatting with other hobbyists. It wasn’t long before I had acquired a (still growing) collection of rocket-oriented build tools, finishing materials, spare parts, a backlog of kits (and even longer wish-list), and an ever-growing list of kit mod and scratch-build ideas. I’ve discovered rocket design and flight-modeling software, and have begun learning about design, dynamic stability and aerodynamics. My nerd-gasm is in full swing.

Now I find myself getting into more advanced kits, scratch builds and kit mods/bashes. We’ve launched our first D and E powered models this flying season, and have even dabbled a little bit in composite fuel motors. We launched our first rocket that was taller than me. We launched a 1/100th scale Saturn V model on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. We’ve joined a local club (CMASS), and I’ve just become a NAR member so that I can be more helpful to the club on launch days, and advance my knowledge and involvement in the hobby.

My son’s enthusiasm keeps growing. He has just assembled his first non fin-can model (mostly) by himself in the form of an Estes Mosquito. It’s about the tiniest possible rocket … only a few inches tall, but he’s proud of his accomplishment. He’s got a pretty good understanding of motor selection, and has become fairly handy at launch prep.

Most every launch has him wide-eyed and energized as the model leaps off the pad into the sky, and holding his breath until he can see the parachute successfully deployed near apogee. Then, jabbering-on excitedly about the events of that launch as he races off to collect the safely landed missile, watches forlornly as an errant gust of wind or updraft carries another beloved (they’re ALL beloved) model into the next county, or picks up the pieces of a model that met its demise in a CATO (aka. “unplanned rapid disassembly event”) on the pad … inspecting the damage and theorizing on the cause of the explosion … doing science whether he realizes it or not.

I beam with pride and joy as I see him unabashedly flit from canopy to canopy to workbench at club launches eyeballing the other hobbyist’s tools, toys and rockets. Asking them a seemingly endless stream of questions. Bragging about his exploits on the flight line. Offering advice (solicited or otherwise) from his growing Encyclopedia of Rocketry Knowledge. Forgetting to ask before touching, then apologising sincerely. Making friends young and old, and absorbing knowledge like balsa absorbs CA. I hold back my instincts to jump in every time it seems like he’s being a little bit of a noodge to some hobbyist with his rapid-fire questions and childish indiscretions. This is how he’ll learn, take off the kid gloves, it’s a safe space.

He already knows more of the club members than I do! The flyers we’ve met have all been warm and welcoming, and seem to have endless patience for sharing their knowledge generously with an enthusiastic 10-year-old question-firing machine gun showing so much interest in the hobby that they clearly love, and genuine admiration for the models they’ve brought to the field that day. “Will you fly this one today? How long did it take you to build that one? That has a black powder E motor in it? What would happen if you put in a composite F? Why’d you paint it like that? Does that thing actually fly? My Dad has a rocket that’s taller than he is! What’s that do? Do you need any motors? My dad has a bunch!” … all without hardly stopping for a breath.

He wants to know when we can fly 29mm motors (I got a 2nd hand 29mm powered rocket, but it needs some work and parts to complete). When I’ll go after a Lv 1 cert (Maybe I’ll attempt it next year). Do I think I’ll ever get a Lv 3 cert? (Not in the near-term plan, but who knows? Maybe we’ll move to the vicinity of the Black Rock desert someday…) What would happen if we put X motor into Y airframe? Will we ever shoot a rocket into space? He’s littered the house with old copies of Sport Rocketry magazine that he charmed some generous rocketeer into letting him have. He loves thumbing through them again and again – looking at the ads, reading the articles, admiring the photos. Yeah, enthusiastic.

So … a seemingly mundane, yet fateful trip to the craft store one summer day in 2018 has launched us onto a trajectory of new discoveries and experiences. And I get to see glimpses of the world through the lens of a young boy’s sparkling brown eyes again. Carpe diem.

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