Balls 2002

September 20th-22nd, 2002

/ Black Rock


This was the Tripoli national experimental launch for 2002. Having been cancelled the year before, there were lots of big projects going up, including a Q motor by the NASSA group, an R hybrid attempt, and of course, Porthos and the Jayhawk.

I was invited to this launch by the Gates Brothers and of course, gladly accepted! Black Rock is in northern Nevada, and is essentially the rocket mecca, being one of the best flying sites in the world. It is a dry lake approximately 20 miles wide by 60 miles long, and is pure nothing. It is somewhat disconcerting to drive up to the edge of the lakebed and not be able to see the flying site due to the curvature of the earth! A GPS is a must. We arrived Friday afternoon and began to set up.

The first rocket off the pads was by Ron Zeppin. It looked like a Rocketman Mach Fever, on a K800 ex motor that turned out to be more like a K400. No matter, the rocket took off and flew perfectly straight on a long burn. He got it back after 11,000 feet of flight.

The first BIG motor that flew at BALLS was by Jim Amos and the group from Colorado. It was an AN O or P motor. The liftoff was amazing-- the flame was 3x as long as the rocket was! However, the rocket was in trouble shortly after this. Flame came out of the forward closure and the rocket started coning majorly and dancing up in the sky. It kept trying and trying to go higher, but gravity eventually won out, and it came back to earth while still burning. The concussion was intense as it plowed into the ground and sprayed burning propellant in about a 100 yard radius. WOW. That's why it's called experimental.

That night, the moon rose and we took a walk down the flightline to pick up the CAZTek tower to be used at XPRS the next week. It was interesting to see all the projects out there, including an R hybrid, a giant glow-in-the-dark rocket, and the beautiful NASSA GPQ rocket. That was slated to fly the next morning.

Early on Saturday, we arrived and began prep on the Jayhawk with 2 AMW N4000BBs. Some major projects began flying at this time. I saw my first P motor at about 9:00 that morning. It was flown by Gene Nowaczyk. The minimum diameter rocket tore off the pad and disappeared. It was really neat.

Then the NASSA group flew, or attempted to fly, their GPQ project. Since I had seen many of their rockets fly successfully before, I was expecting a bullet liftoff and the rocket to disappear into the heavens. Instead, we were treated to quite a show, as the motor upchucked its forward closure and the rocket began acting like a giant roman candle. It was shooting grains in the air about every 5 seconds, and it quickly became apparent that the rocket wasn't the only thing on fire. The launch trailer had caught as well. All we could do from 2000 feet away was to stand there and watch the whole thing become consumed in flame and smoke. Then the smoke slowly turned from white to black as the tires caught on fire. All they got back was the payload section of the rocket, with all electronics, that had safely ejected when the motor first catoed.

Now that the Jayhawk was prepped and ready, we rolled her out onto the launch pad. After some rail guide trouble, the new hydraulic lift, um, lifted her like a charm. We went back a few hundred feet and got ready. At zero, the motors lit and shook the earth. The rocket moved up and out quickly. It successfully deployed the drogue at 7120 feet. The mains came out perfectly at 1500 feet, and flight one was over.

Dave Griffith and the hybrid bunch were up at BALLS playing around with some really neat toys. He had a couple of tribrids, which are liquid motors with a hybrid starter grain. They transition in mid flight. The first one that we watched lit and started going, sounding like a buzz bomb. At about 20,000 feet, it self-destructed. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop that had been going so merrily turned into pop-pop-pop-pop-silence. It was a way cool flight.

Another Dave that was out there was Dave Triano, the one and only. He had teamed up with Dr. K to fly an all-carbon O10,000 beast. It tore out of the Tetanus Tower™ and was really truckin' when it also did the 'mondo shred' routine at about 40,000 feet. It was really pretty. The rocket and the shred, I mean.

If it sounds like I liked the CATOs and shreds as much as the successful flights, you're pretty right. The only ones that I didn't like were those that almost hit something. There was a scary one on Sunday morning that shredded and came down about 10 feet from the flight line...

One of the best parts about BALLS was the nights at Black Rock. They were clear, cool, and starry. There are billions of stars out in the desolation that is Black Rock that we can't see here in the L.A. Metropolis. Of course, we also saw a beautiful G4000 flight in the 6" glow-in-the-dark rocket that screamed outta here on a blue trail and probably went about 10,000 feet, with successful deployment... it was a G motor, after all ;)

Sunday morning we came back and started prep on Porthos II. I helped the Gates' build this sucker over the summer. It is 18" diameter at the base, transitioning to 11" for the rest of the rocket. She packed an AMW P10,000 and 6 AMW N4000s. We did much simming on the plane ride up. Dirk finally settled on taking off on the P motor, and airstarting the Ns in 3 pairs on the way up. Porthos II was looking at about 36,000 feet and 1450 feet/sec. We rolled her out to the pad and began final prep there.

While Porthos II was being readied, John Coker launched his Nike-Asp on an M1939 to an N600 (or some insane motor like that). It was a perfect boost, and then the sustainer lit. It went, and went, and went, and went, and went, and went, for about 23 seconds. It burned for so long that I looked away and looked back and it was still burning. It was way cool. However, he didn't get a drogue, and the mains were the first event on the sustainer, showing up at about 1500 feet. Of course, they promptly ripped the anchors out of the bulkheads, but they saved the rocket from major damage. Good job, John.

We also were next to the R (or Q or something like that) hybrid that was owned by Jeff Jakob. They began tanking it while we were prepping. It was going to take an hour or so to fill, so we continued prep while they kept filling. As we were working on the ejection systems, we heard a loud POP-SPROIIIINGGGGG and saw the hybrid starting to vent. Uh oh. They popped a fill hose. Freaked us out working with 16 gm black powder charges! The rocket was lowered and the problem fixed. They started filling again. This time, we were taping retainers to make sure that the airstarts lit, when we heard a big FWOOOOSH and saw a large cloud of something at the base of the rocket. We were only about 200 feet away at the time, and believe me, you don't want to be that close to an EX Q hybrid motor. Luckily, the rocket hadn't fired, but unluckily, they had broken something else and began venting all the nitrous AGAIN. So they fixed it and re-tanked it. Porthos II was about ready for rolling onto the launch pad. We received word that they were ready to fly, and got behind all the cars about 1000 feet away. We watched as they disconnected the quick-connect fill hose, or tried to. The quick-connect wasn't giving way. They yanked and yanked, and got more manpower, and yanked some more, until it pulled off half way. Well, Jeff was too nervous for his own good, and kept yanking. There was obviously something wrong. They got about 10 people on the line and pulled REALLY hard, when we all heard a big KLANK. They knocked over a nitrous bottle next to the pad, knocking off the regulator and blowing nitrous everywhere from a pressurized cylinder. Not fun. Needless to say, they scrubbed the launch and vented 650 lbs. of nitrous oxide. Ugh.

By this time, Porthos was ready to fly. We rolled her onto the rail, and took a break from all the prep work. I watched Dave Griffith fly another tribrid, and this one worked. I also watched Les Derkovitz fly his big red Svensk. This rocket can be seen in the month of December on the RocketSilo 2002 calendar. This time it was loaded with a NASSA Blue Flame N4600. Let me tell you, that sucker was fast! Really fast. And I got a picture of it. Seriously though, this 5" all-fiberglass rocket MOVED up to 26,000 feet.

We raised Porthos after some rail guide troubles (shoulda learned from that Jayhawk). Erik armed all of the timers, the brothers installed igniters, and we were ready to fly. Dirk handed the button to Bruce Kelly, and the range head counted down. As the count hit zero, Bruce hit the button, and held on for dear life. The big P motor lit, and it didn't only shake the earth, but it rocked the world. The rocket moved slowly off the pad, and it was the perfect Kodak moment. As the motor burned out, there was a brief pause, and then the first pair of Ns lit. It danced another 4,000 feet higher, and then more N motors lit, followed by the third pair 5 seconds later. By now we were 25 seconds into the flight. Porthos coasted up to apogee, with much shouting from the crew below. And it ejected a Rocketman R24 drogue, ripped out the upper ARRD, and deployed the upper 26 foot main. The lower mains stayed put where they should have. Oh well, now we had an entry in the bowling ball duration contest. You see, before the flight, Erik jury-rigged a 16 lb. bowling ball into the nose cone. Maybe he sabotaged the rocket, going for duration. Whatever. It was doing fine. The booster mains came out at 2000 feet, and everyone was ecstatic. The largest completely recovered amateur rocket in history. We got her all back without a scratch.

By now, the launch was winding down. However, the British guys had one last project to fly. It was a long, skinny hybrid rocket powered by a hybrid motor of their own design. At the command "Shoot", the rocket smoked, smoked, smoked, and took off with a gutsy roar. It lost half the nozzle right at the top of the tower, but kept moving and went and went and went, kinda like John's sustainer. The rocket was soon a dot in the sky at 40,000 feet. And they got it all back in one piece, even finding the rest of the nozzle next to the pad. They know how to do hybrids right.

BALLS was an amazing weekend. For more pics and videos, visit the GBR page on ROL presents.

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