By Debbie Adams
Some people fish; some people craft; some people play golf. Eric Lynn builds and launches high powered model rockets as a hobby.
Lynn traces his interest in model rocketry to growing up in southern California about 20 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Rocket and missile launches would shake the ground; neighbors would stream outside thinking “earthquake,” and stay to watch the massive trails of smoke in the sky.
Lynn, his dad, and brothers took up model rocketry in the 90’s, when high-powered rocketry was just getting started—building from kits. It gave them an interest in common–something they could do together as a family. That’s what piqued his interest in the hobby again as “something to do” with his almost four-year-old stepson.
Lynn has been involved with competition shooting and reloading ammunition for several years, but his enthusiasm has waned over time. Learning there was as local model rocketry organization at Virginia Tech—New River Valley Rocketry (NRVR)–where high-powered rockets can be launched, sparked his curiosity.
He started off building rockets with small motors from kits—ones that could be safely launched from his backyard, the driveway, or nearby fields. That led to extensive research and building more powerful rockets—and eventual certification in high-powered rocketry.
Since it’s best practice to launch high-powered rockets through affiliation with a club, Lynn joined NRVR which launches from Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farms, and also the Valley Aerospace Team (VAST) in northern Virginia near Monterey. Both groups host monthly launches (at least prior to COVID-19) for members. He is also a member of the Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA).
The most recent NRVR launch at Kentland Farms in Blacksburg was on November 21 with both afternoon and evening sessions. NRVR members, students, and spectators spent a beautiful fall afternoon watching rockets lift off (with such powerful blasts that preschoolers needed earmuffs) and then drift slowly back to earth when parachutes deployed.
The evening session was a spectacular light show. Lynn launched three rockets while it was daylight and a unique spool spinner rocket after dark—which does just what its name implies—with glow sticks attached.
He says that model rocketry is not really a hobby familiar to, or available to most. Supplies are usually not readily available locally. It can be an expensive pursuit; and there are many rules and regulations to follow. Some people are just hesitant about a hobby they perceive as involving flammables.
Decades ago, in the early years of model rocketry, it was considered a more dangerous hobby with metallic frames and mixing of dangerous propellants. Today, model rockets are constructed of much safer materials—such as cardboard, plastic, fiberglass, and balsa wood—and the commercial motor manufacturers have made it possible for rocket modelers to buy motors eliminating the need to mix propellants or work with flammable materials.
There are prescribed safety precautions in place for launches, dictated by the FAA and the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), as well as the local organizations.
In fact, unless you have become certified by the parent organizations who oversee high power rocketry–the National Association of Rocketry (NAR) or the TRA–you can’t purchase the higher power motors over the counter. They must be mail-ordered or purchased at some launch sites by adult modelers who are High Power Certified.
Lynn has earned his Level 1 and Level 2 certifications. Level 1 allows the purchase and use of H and I motors; Level 2, the purchase of J, K, and L motors.
You must be 18 years of age to seek Level 1 certification. You build your rocket from scratch or a kit with a recovery system (usually a parachute) and assemble the motor in the presence of a certification team member.
That individual evaluates the flight on stability, successful deployment of the recovery system, and safe recovery. The rocket builder must be able to answer oral questions about the rocket and flight as well.
For Level 2 certification, the flyer must pass a written exam before the flight attempt, including questions on technical knowledge of rockets and scientific theorems.
Starting out in model rocketry takes just a few basic tools, like an Exacto knife, and some wood glue. As your skills grow, the tools, supplies, and motors become more advanced.
The NRVR recommends starting with a basic rocket kit. They say much thought and expertise goes into the designing of these kits so that beginners get the benefit of years of design wisdom, good construction techniques, and clear, detailed directions starting out.
You can purchase supplies at hobby shops, such as Crossroads Hobbies and Crafts in Salem, but there are few brick and mortar stores to be found with supplies for building higher powered rockets. Lynn orders most of his supplies online.
As you get more involved, you can stick with increasingly technical kits, or you can design on your own. Lynn says many people build huge rockets from scratch. It’s a hobby that can become as big or small as you want to make it, as expensive as you are willing to pay, with rockets that go as high as you want.
If someone is considering taking up the hobby, Lynn says they should do some research to determine if it’s for them, attend some launches to see what goes on, and talk to the enthusiasts there. There is also a world of knowledge available online, through forums, YouTube, and Facebook groups.
The Virginia Tech students who launch at Kentland Farms through NRVR, tend to be engineering majors. Lynn says most model rocket enthusiasts tend to be in engineering or science-based career fields.
He came east from California to attend Virginia Tech himself. He considered an engineering career, but ultimately settled on a major in biology. He works in Roanoke now as a lab technician running a mass spectrometer and lives in Vinton.
Lynn says model rocketry can be a year-round hobby. The NRVR and VAST have launches even during the winter. The NRVR, due to its relationship with Virginia Tech and Kentland Farms did cancel some launches over the spring and summer to adhere to CDC guidelines.
As for the specific skills you might need to be successful in model rocketry, he says attention to detail might be the most important. “Being a perfectionist is a plus.”
Lynn has goals of building and launching rockets capable of reaching a one-mile altitude and also supersonic flights that can break the sound barrier. A supersonic flight would require a trip to Bayboro, North Carolina, known as “one of the best rocket launch fields on the east coast, with over 3,800 acres of unobstructed recovery area, and a 17,500-feet FAA waiver.”
Kentland Farms, near the New River, has a 10,000-foot FAA high power flight waiver, but due to the tree lines and the river, the NRVR tries to keep most flights under 5,000 feet in altitude.
One of the biggest challenges in model rocketry is that you generally need to take a hike to recover the rocket you have launched unless you are fortunate enough to have it land back where it set off from.
Lynn says that he enjoys both sides of the hobby—building and launching, although launching is “more fun.”
Many people come to the launches without taking up building their own rockets—just because it’s exciting to watch.
Attendees are welcome to bring chairs, food, drink, and pets. Check the NRVR website at http://nrvr.org/ for upcoming events.