The usually placid Gill Corn Farm in Hurley, N.Y., an expansive cornfield in the southern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, was alive with the sights and sounds of rocket engines during Connecticut Rocket Association’s (CTRA) bimonthly rocket launch on Saturday, May 4.
Powerful rockets, some exceeding eight feet in length, ripped off the launching pads with a roar and reached heights of up to 6,000 feet before floating safely back down to earth with the aid of parachutes. Approximately 30 spectators, many of them members of CTRA, watched scores of adrenaline-producing launches from a dirt road that cut through the field.
Newtown resident and inveterate model rocket enthusiast Michael Salvatore, treasurer of CTRA, launched his five-foot-six-inch black matte rocket — appropriately named Back in Black — several times into the crystal clear cerulean sky on the spring day. After retrieving his “workhorse” from the sea of corn stalks, Mr Salvatore extolled the pleasures of building and launching model rockets.
“It’s the fastest, loudest, most powerful hobby on the planet,” he said.
A member of the CTRA for 15 years, Mr Salvatore traced the genesis of his high-speed hobby back to when he used to build rudimentary starter rockets with his young children, an activity that they outgrew but he did not.
“The kids went on to other things — cars, girls — and I stuck with the rockets,” Mr Salvatore said.
Mr Salvatore said he is drawn to the sheer force displayed during launches.
“I love the raw power behind them. It’s thrilling watching something you put together have that kind of power and come back to earth intact,” he said.
Finding the appeal of model rocketry so alluring, Mr Salvatore has recruited several of his friends to join CTRA, which he refers to as “joining the dark side.” Newtown resident Chris Graham is a newly initiated member of CTRA, who has found his first year of membership an enjoyable and educational experience.
A self-described beginner, Mr Graham currently has built two rockets and said he has learned a lot about the hobby from the more seasoned members of the group.
“I’ve learned about the assembly of the engine and parts. If you put it together wrong, it can fail,” Mr Graham said.
The failures Mr Graham referred to can include failure to launch, improper or unsafe launch paths, failure of the parachutes to deploy, or having a rocket catch fire and burn up on the launch pad, which is known as a “barbecue pit.”
(Click here to familiarize yourself with other jargon used within model rocketry circles.)
CTRA Director Joe Sredniawski accepted the inevitability of failures after watching his doomed vessel hurtle toward the hard-packed dirt road when its parachutes failed to deploy.
“You have to swallow hard and accept that there are going to be crashes,” Mr Sredniawski said.
CTRA member Craig Nemethy explained that failures can be attributed to many variables, some of which cannot be attributed to human error. While Mr Nemethy said he feels upset if his rocket fails, his main concern is for the well-being of the people attending the launch.
“I don’t care if a rocket crashes. I’m more concerned with the people at the launch. I’m upset at the failure, but I’m more concerned that the people out here are happy and safe,” Mr Nemethy said.
Despite the inherent and obvious risks of launching homemade projectiles powered by chemical propellants, CTRA has never had a major issue with safety, according to Mr Salvatore.
“These things are safer than model airplanes,” Mr Salvatore said. “None of us have ever had an insurance claim. There has never been an accident or injury other than the occasional black powder burn.”
Many of CTRA’s member, including Gary Tortora, said that they enjoy the club’s camaraderie as much as the actual rocket building and launching.
“Flying is the best part, but the people are also great. We have laborers to doctors to lawyers, it doesn’t matter on the field, we are all BAR [born-again rocketeers],” Mr Tortora said.
In addition to accepting people from all walks of life, the club also accommodates all skill levels and ages. The May 4 launch was attended by highly experienced members like Mr Tortora, who has sold several of his personal rockets designs to companies for distribution, and by neophytes such as Zach Zysk, 12, and Nicholas Johnson, 11, who launched their first rockets. Both Zach and Nicholas built their rockets as part of a school club at Christian Heritage School in Trumbull.
“I felt a great sense of pride that I did it correctly,” Zach said.
“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” Nicholas added.
Mr Salvatore also sees an educational benefit in model rocketry. Scientific theories become reality on the launch pad.
Students from prestigious and esteemed universities, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Rochester Institute of Technology, have attended launches in the past to try their hand at rocket science, sometimes with less than desirable results. According to Mr Salvatore, while theory is important, it is imperative to consider “matters of practicality.” Those matters became apparent to several MIT students who eschewed a piece of advice he gave them prior to their ill-fated launch.
“Their rocket was literally confetti. The fin fell to the west, the nose to the east,” Mr Salvatore said.
While there is a learning curve in mastering the advanced scientific principles associated with model rocketry, perhaps the most challenging thing for novices to understand is the terminology used by the model rocket community. CTRA members like Mr Salvatore enthusiastically talk about flux capacitors, apogee, barometric dual display altimeters, and barometric telemeters (see sidebar). Even though foreign terms and technology may make rocketry appear daunting to some, CTRA member Patrick McConnell has a more simplified view of the unique pastime.
“It’s still fun, it’s just guys with toys,” Mr McConnell said.
For Mr Salvatore it’s an ideal way to spend his free time.
“If I could sit in my basement all day and build rockets, I’d be happy,” he said.
To learn more about CTRA, visit ctranarconn.wordpress.com, which lists meeting dates and times, how to become a member, and rules and regulations.