LDRS20 - Lucerne Dry Lake - July 19-22, 2001 By Ken Good
News flash! TRA Board Member and National Secretary red-flagged on launch pad #46!
What sort of terrible, irresponsible, and ecologically dangerous rocket did Ken Good, a member of Tripoli since 1967 and now a TRA Board member, try to fly? Was it something with a pyrotechnic warhead? A guided missile perhaps? A biological payload on board? Had this old rocketeer lost his mind completely?
The truth of the matter is that I was trying to fly one of my "sinister" rack rockets, the new Exeter which had debuted successfully at Dragon's Fire 20. Of course, who these days, on a national basis, knows from squat about what a rack rocket is? Therein lies the tale…..
But before I get to that, let me relate my impressions of LDRS20. To tell the truth, the whole experience was a mixed-bag: thrilling, challenging, rewarding, surreal, and frustrating. And a great amount of my experience had little directly to do with flying rockets. (Dave Rose has offered an excellent narrative of the Tripoli Pittsburgh team experiences at LDRS, and I will not attempt to impinge upon that. My views were from a slightly different perspective anyway.)
When you finally approach the dry lake bed at Lucerne, little of this landscape has changed. But as you regard the Lucerne Valley from an overlooking northeastern slope, some five miles distant, you witness a vast, brown, empty sweep of land. It looks perfectly smooth from this distance, and you can imagine it filled in some primordial time with dark, quiet waters, hiding strange creatures unknown to human eyes. This land has transported you into the surreal. The reality of the lake bed launch site is that it is huge, compared to anything we know in the East, with miles of unbroken, vegetation-free flatness. A perfect place to fly and recover rockets. But you must never forget where you are, and the merciless sun which begins to fiercely heat the land before 10 AM, does not fail to remind you that this is a cruel place, for which you had better be prepared.
Our initial visit to the launch site involved setting up a large shade tent (BTW - thanks to TRA President and Pittsburgh member Bruce Kelly for grabbing the best spot for us to set up) and checking out the site. Afterward, our group rendezvoused with the final member of the Pittsburgh team, Leif Hammer, at the Ramada in Victorville (some 30 miles or so distant) for the TRA Board meeting. This promised to be interesting, for in addition to the normal business, Jerry Irvine had been invited to attend to petition the Board for reinstatement of his membership.
There was much speculation about whether Jerry would show, since he has not been enamored of Tripoli for some years, and the invitation to him was an outgrowth of a Board denial of Jerry's request to attend the members' banquet/meeting (on Saturday, July 21) to present two proposed awards. For those who do not know Jerry, it should be noted that he was a pioneering HP rocketeer (I first met him at LDRS 2), long associated with Lucerne, but who has also gained among many a negative reputation resulting from perceptions of his business practices. Ultimately, in the early '90's, the TRA Board expelled him after discovering problems with FAA waivers at Lucerne, with which he had acted as a coordinator, that had resulted in TRA members inadvertently flying rockets in excess of the true granted waiver.
Jerry did in fact appear, as invited, at 2 PM on July 18 (incidentally, the birthday of both Tom Blazanin and me). His petition was comprised of a very long discussion and Q & A with the Board, including some exchanges that had me wondering when we had passed through the looking glass. I could not help but marvel at the adroitness with which Jerry altered his interpretations of fact, when confronted with information that confounded his first interpretation.
I was particularly concerned about some questionable statements Jerry had recently made on RMR, and directly asked him about a couple of these. That alone was a curious and elliptical discussion - but I did get the impression Jerry realized (perhaps to his surprise) that at least one Board member was paying some attention to his public statements, and that some of these had not necessarily helped his cause. Ultimately, after some 2 -1/2 hours of discussion with the Board, Jerry was requested to return in the evening for the their decision. For reasons that I will reserve for my next publication of the "Tripoli Report" Jerry's petition was denied. Because of all this, the meeting went very late, and I was happy to get some sleep when I could finally retire for the evening.
The morning was rounded out by Leif, with his beautiful Fire-Arrow rocket, which he prepped to fly on an H-motor. And what a sense of style and symmetry - before he moved out to the flight line, Leif donned a matching red t-shirt, complete with the "Fire Arrow" motif, as on the rocket, in Chinese characters. He was rewarded with a fine, picture perfect flight and easy recovery.
We had begun to display the shining Gloria Mundi III when we first truly set-up at the field, and it had gotten some admiring attention, despite its lack of a nose cone (Tom and I had searched among the vendors for a cheap "stand-in" cone, but none could be found of the appropriate diameter). However, the GM III's moments of attention would be eclipsed on this afternoon by the arrival of our NASSA colleagues, Jerry McInlay, Les Derkovitz, and Dave Pacheco, who proceeded to display their collection of beautiful huge experimental rockets. Chief among these was the impressive GPQ, which really had admiring rocketeers in awe. "Are you guys going to launch that here?!!!"
Another highlight - possibly a lowlight - of the day was trying to sort out a motor delivery snafu. Dave had earlier picked up our engine order from Performance Hobbies. We both had K550's ordered, but it would turn out that our box of goodies had one K550 and one K1100 in it. After briefly considering, and rejecting, the idea of either of us using the K1100, I went back to see Ken Allen….but our K550 had been erroneously picked up by another flyer. Ken asked if I could have the other guy paged by the LCO announcer so that we could do the swap, which I agreed to do. After requesting this announcement a couple of times, and some time passing without it happening, I requested Tom to use his influence as a "Tripoli legend" to go and request it. Tom, as is his way, took matters into his own hands; he walked over to the guy with the mike, held out his hand to use the mike, and when it was duly passed to him, he made my announcement for me! Unfortunately, by the time the flyer came to see Ken again, he had already assembled his motor. It was ironic that this flyer would then crash his rocket using the motor he wasn't supposed to have! In any case, Dave was able to secure another K550 from another vendor, so we were both set for our flights the next day.
By mid-afternoon, the winds were kicking up, the dust blowing, and we all decided to head back for the host hotel for showers and some dinner at one of the local restaurants. An evening of good times, with the Kelly family and the Pittsburgh/NASSA contingent, was enjoyed by all. Dave, Chris, Leif, and I finished off the day, struggling against fatigue, to prep Dave's Six Appeal and my Merlin for anticipated flights early the next morning.
The TV folks were very nice, and were quite amazed at what they were seeing. We introduced them to flyers, explained what was going on, took them out to the pads, helped set up some take-off shots, and ultimately, we were the subjects of short interviews with them. At one point, we even introduced them to Frank Kosdon, in all his squalid glory. Suffice it to say that Frank was not at his most photogenic that day, but he did closely resemble the caricature of him (torn t-shirt, dirty gym shorts and mud-caked knees) standing at the Aerotech tent right next to his. Frank was also a bit less than congenial, mixing and sipping lemonade from a wide plastic container as he gave rather curt answers to questions. Indeed, First TV had met one of rocketry's "colorful" figures.
While conducting our media friends around, I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a high incidence of “things going awry” with the launches that were taking place. Saturday was of course one of the most highly attended days at LDRS, and it seemed as though the large number of flyers were taxing the ability of the LCO volunteers to keep things going as smoothly as they would have liked. There were a few take-off snafus, and some flyers complained of rockets sitting on the pads for inordinate amounts of time (it's always tough for the hosting organization at LDRS, since no one can fully predict how many flyers will be trying to queue up at the same time on the busiest days of the event). Even more concerning was the larger than usual number of prangs and free-falling bowling balls, some, surprisingly, from experienced flyers. One of the most scary of these was the flight of a huge 1/3-scale V2, which struggled on its not-all-lit engine cluster to leave the pads, immediately arcing over the crowd and crashing, fortunately in a clear area beyond the spectators.
In candor, the problems noted left me less than impressed overall with how expert we all looked on Saturday. With that said, I’ll admit to being highly sensitive and critical of this – I was really looking with the eyes of a Board member and the potential danger of less-than-optimal launch performance. Indeed, the vast majority of flights this day were successful, and handled properly by the LCO.
The downside to the TV thing was that it consumed my day. I did manage to witness Dave's impressive Six Appeal flight, which was a gorgeous thing to behold. Somehow I missed Leif's second flight of his Fire-Arrow, but I understand this was another text-book flight. By the time the TV folks packed up and left, it was mid-afternoon and the winds were just beginning. The Merlin flight would be scrubbed for the day, as an early quit - the members’ dinner and meeting was that evening - was in order.
The members’ dinner/meeting was a memorable occasion, as they frequently can be. As usual, following food, the Board meets to announce election results and name official positions. This year, Sonny Thompson had decided not to run for his Board seat again, so at least one new member would be named.
It turned out that Derek Deville, a fine rocketeer from Florida, would win a seat. Bruce Lee and Bill Davidson would, not surprisingly (these are two excellent Board members, BTW), retain their seats. As far as the official positions, Bruce Kelly was again elected President, Dick Embry was nominated and confirmed as Vice-President, Bruce Lee was nominated and confirmed as Treasurer, and I was nominated and confirmed as Secretary (proving once again that no other sucker wants the job!).
A highlight of the meeting was provided by Tom Blazanin, chair of the lifetime membership committee. Tom had previously submitted to the Board two names for approval as lifetime members, Korey Kline and Gary Rosenfield. These had been approved, and Tom presented these awards at the meeting. Korey was most pleased, and gave a few remarks harkening back to the old days when he was called up to the podium. It was interesting for me (knowing who was next to be named) to watch Gary's reaction as Tom gave the lead-in to calling his name. It was clear to me that Gary had no suspicion it would be him, but as Tom's remarks more and more "resembled" Gary, you could see his quizzical reaction as he realized this. When his name was announced, Gary was quite moved. I could tell he was very touched and somewhat overwhelmed; he was only able to make a few brief remarks, so genuine were his feelings.
The member Q&A that followed was interesting, if somewhat uneventful. The exception was when Frank Kosdon got up to ask a question. After some time of venting his frustration at Federal regulations, California regulations, red tape, etc., I (taking the minutes of the meeting) was having some trouble discerning a question. I am not so sure we ever really arrived at one, but it was interesting to hear Frank express his views, nonetheless.
The members' raffle consumed the remainder of the evening for most. The Rose family were not quite as lucky as last year, but Dave still managed to win a three-casing 54mm motor set (!). Of course, Dave, being the motor junkie he is, already had these motors, so he arranged with the vendor a swap of the motor set for a larger 54mm motor he didn't have. I completed my evening with some last Board matters, which challenged my ability to stay awake. But fear not, O my Tripoli colleagues, your newly re-named TRA Secretary managed to record all necessary information before his eyes glazed over!
We wasted no time in prepping the Merlin, for the second time this event. It flew beautifully on the K550, and unlike last year at LDRS19, I could see the Merlin all the way to its 6,600 ft. apogee. It was apparent that it is tough to find any more clear skies than those over Lucerne on a bright July morning. As the Merlin popped its ‘chute at apogee, all seemed well, but the descent was occurring very slowly indeed. After Leif and I set off after it, it became apparent that the main had come out at the same time as the drogue. A long walk later, we recovered it, in perfect shape, but it was likely the two-shear-pin main recovery section retention method, despite having worked multiple times before, had failed me this time. The good thing is that Lucerne, with ample recovery room, is one of the better places for this kind of failure to occur. Note for future flights – double up on the shear pins.
There was one rocket left to deal with – the Exeter. I seriously debated whether I should fly it, but after talking to Korey Kline – a fellow rack-rocket enthusiast – and hearing the words of Francis Graham in my head – “Rockets look great sitting on the shelf, but that’s not what rockets are for” – I decided to have a go with the Exeter. Since the prep time for this rocket is, to say the least, extensive, I decided to go up to the RSO table ahead of time, with Exeter in hand, to explain what it did and see if they would approve its flight. Happily, the RSO thought the rocket was pretty cool, and gave it a preliminary green light. So, back to the tent we went, and started on the intricate preparation process.
Over 1-1/2 hour later, with much help from Leif, Dave, and Chris, we took the Exeter out to be RSO’ed in earnest, and out to the launch pad. Shortly after doing so, I realized that I hadn’t re-checked the timing switches on the staging timer. So with the approval of the LCO, I de-padded the Exeter, checked and slightly adjusted the staging times, and re-padded the rocket. Then the Exeter sat and sat… too long, as it would transpire.
Rick Magee had joined the LCO. I had given full “heads up” details on my flight card, to describe what the Exeter did as it staged. As the LCO announced this, Rick could be heard, slightly off mike, saying, “...it can’t do THAT!” I knew then we would be having some “discussion.” After some confused off-mike conversation at the LCO table, the LCO requested my presence to further explain at the LCO table.
It turns out that Rick Magee had made a decision, within his right as host prefect, that unless the stages had some recovery device, he didn’t care for the G-motors dropping free from the parent rocket. One could understand his nervousness – Sunday's flight events had seen a similar degree of raggedness witnessed on Saturday, with a higher number of miscues and rocket prangs than would make a host official comfortable. Of course, I felt at the time that Rick’s position was an overreaction – it seemed disproportionate to be overly concerned over two small G-motors ejecting onto the barren lake-bed, predictably and a safe distance from the crowd, when so many aggregious errors had occurred.
So, approaching the LCO table, one of the LTR officials discussed the matter with me. Yes, I was quietly ticked off, and despite the obvious embarrassment of the LTR guy, it was clear the flight was going nowhere. My main beef was the disconnect between the RSO’s position and that of the prefect, which had wasted much of our team’s time that could have been spent otherwise (like socializing with some folks we hadn’t seen in a year). However, no matter what, the prefect had made a call in the interests of what he had perceived as safety, and I would not argue any decision like that. Many years of experience, and having to make such calls myself as a prefect, argue convincingly that erring on the side of caution may be best at times. Needless to say, though, at that time, I found the whole thing to be embarassing, and concluded that someone must truly think me a real desperado, with such a “blatantly unsafe” rack rocket!
We spent our final hour going through the vendor area one last time, saying our goodbyes to everyone, and packing things up. Leif parted company with us, heading for his sister’s place. As we left the lake-bed and started our journey to Las Vegas, I was able to think objectively about the entire experience. The event had been something of a blur for me, as busy as I had been. The verdict – LDRS 20 was at once satisfying and frustrating - and yes, surreal (to remind me that I was in alien country, we were able to witness a few final dust-devils on our way out). I was most impressed with how well the Pittsburgh folks had pulled together as a team, mutually supporting each other’s flights. Tom, Dave, Chris, and Leif were the best of companions with whom to share an LDRS. Tom had been in rare form, amusing us with his stories and amazing us with the deference shown to him by the participants, many still knowing, remembering, and appreciating his key formative role in our organization.
Lucerne is a superb location to fly rockets, and it is not surprising when you see the place to understand how this was a seminal venue for the growing HP movement of the early 1980’s. The slogan of LDRS 20 was “high power comes home.” Well, that’s an arguable point, but no doubt, Lucerne is one of high power’s early homes. It was the joining of the Lucerne group, the Ohio group, and the early Tripoli (Pittsburgh) group at the time of the first two LDRS events (both held in Medina, Ohio) that really jump-started high power. So I think at least three areas should get their due recognition for being the homes of high power. But this takes nothing away from Lucerne, easily the best natural geographic place among those three for getting very serious about high power.
Ironically, this is the first LDRS ever held at Lucerne. It shouldn’t be the last. While getting there (and even more importantly, getting rockets there) is a bit of a challenge for us in the East, there is no experience quite like launching rockets in a perfectly flat, wide-open desert. As a current Board member, I would have liked to have seen the weekend flying go a bit more smoothly, but running an LDRS is a daunting task, and one that few volunteer to assume. The errors will be good future object lessons for all of us. And the magnificence of this twentieth LDRS will never be forgotten.