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Home / Features / 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon's First Thaw
18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon's First Thaw Print E-mail PDF
Launch Report by David Harris, L3   
Sunday, April 17, 2011

ImageAt First Thaw, hosted by Oregon Rocketry over the first weekend in April, I was honored with the privilege of attempting all three Tripoli certification levels in a two-day span following my 18th birthday. I've been flying rockets all my life, really getting into high power over the last two years by flying under certified member's names. There has been no shortage of Oregon Rocketry members who were more than willing to help me get my increasingly large and complex projects into the air.

My certification plan was simple, but the execution quickly became complex. I planned to certify L1 and L2 on a 3" fiberglass rocket on a CTI I445 and an AeroTech J350 respectively, and fly a CTI M1230 baby M in a 4" fiberglass airframe. All flights except the L3 flight to 14k and well over Mach 1 were relatively conservative—I had flown 4" rockets on L motors before.

Friday in Brothers, Oregon was wonderful weather—far better than April in Oregon usually is. After arriving at the launch site, I went about prepping for my L1 flight. The goal was to use motor ejection with the main at apogee and to test out an ALTACC-2A that I had bought second-hand. The prep work went about as badly as it could, with the ALTACC displaying all sorts of weird flashes as I wired up the e-bay backwards. I realized this right before going out to the pad, and had to take it all apart and start over.

Finally, I had the rocket on the pad around 2:30pm. The I445 Vmax quickly came to life (and the short burn ensured that it quickly extinguished as well), and the apogee event was right at the top (turns out this was from the motor delay, not the altimeter). But no chute. It fell for 1500 feet, with the parachute stuck halfway out of the tube and hit the ground leaving a sickening feeling in my stomach. Here I was trying to become one of the youngest ever to certify L3, and I just crashed my L1.

However, some fantastic individuals came to my assistance to save the weekend. Fred Azinger (one of my TAPs) set me up with some 5-minute epoxy to fix the fin, and Mike LaRochelle sold me a baby H motor and let me borrow a motor casing. About half an hour later, we were back on the pad with a stripped-down rocket flying motor ejection only. This had to be the most photographed H123 of all time, with Team Hardtail's 10lb HD camera, my camera, and at least 4 SLR's with giant zoom lenses. No pressure.

The flight didn't disappoint, however, with the classic White Lightning boost putting the rocket up to around 800 feet, just enough room to let the parachute tease us by taking an extra few second to inflate. L1: Success. Sorta.

The only problem was, there was no way that this 5-minute epoxy job that was good enough for an H123 would be good enough for the J350 I was planning for my L2. The solution to the problem was to fly the only other L2 motor I had, a 75mm 4-grain CTI L2375 in my Level 3 rocket. This was almost all prepped and ready to go for Level 3 at home, but got pressed into service for the L2 certification. At around 5pm, we loaded it up on Fred's new tower pad with a 12' rail and after a couple of igniter misfires, finally got it lit. And light it did—pulling 28g's off the pad in the 4" rocket and streaking to Mach 1.26 and 13,600 feet. And then the tracker stopped functioning.

Nervously, we all waited for it to come back in sight, but with the grey skies the chances were slim, even though we heard the apogee charges. What felt like an eternity went by and finally I heard charges off in the distance. Someone spotted the orange main chute settling down on the ridge to the east, literally in the last 10 seconds of the flight. What a miracle! After about an hour of driving/hiking/searching, we finally found the rocket amongst the cow dung on the east ridge. It was in perfect condition, except a little smelly.

The next morning, we got up early and prepped the L3 rocket again in the hotel room even though the weather looked pretty nasty that day. We had a window—with the local fighter wing monopolizing the airspace—to launch between 11:30 and 1:30, but it was snowing/hailing during most of the time. Robert Braibish graciously offered his new trailer for me to use to finalize my prep away from the wind and the cold, with the hope that we could get a window to launch.

Around 1:15, the hail suddenly stopped and a blue hole in the deck was over the pad. We hurried to put Fred's Beeline in the nose cone to replace my unit. The M1230 sputtered and smoked before kicking the rocket off the pad and right through the hole in the clouds—a picture perfect moment. While the descent from 14,800 feet was too high and too far out for us to see from the ground, post flight altimeter data analysis indicates that the conditions aloft were extremely violent—with the lateral accelerometer on the Raven pegging close to 12g's at a time compared to 2g's on the L2 flight before and the GPS tracker showing a pretty varied descent rate.

The main was spotted with much jubilation on the north flank of the hill with the lone tree, and the recovery for this one was much quicker. Bringing the rocket back to camp marked the culmination of the last two years for me. I think I'm one of the youngest ever to certify L3. I couldn't have gotten anywhere close to this accomplishment without the wonderful people of Oregon Rocketry, starting with Steve Cutonilli and Joe Bevier who took me under their wings to enable me to start flying Level 2 rockets, sign flight cards, provide guidance and help with tracking.

This launch itself was made possible by Robert Krausert seeing one of my flights and making a commitment to me that he would help me get my certifications as soon as possible after my birthday. This promise was fulfilled when it evolved into the First Thaw launch, and culminated in his offer to buy my Level 3 motor. His unstoppable attitude to uphold his promise against some opposition to such an event is what knocked down the barriers to me being able to do this.

Fred Azinger and Team Hardtail came out in the cold and didn't even get to launch anything at all, and did a fantastic job working with Randy Birzer to open the waiver when local fighter wings wanted the airspace. And Mike Moor's video was outstanding.

Vern Knowles served as my TAP along with Fred Azinger, providing excellent guidance and support throughout the Level 3 process. I couldn't have asked for better TAP's.

I was honored by all of the guys at the launch who gave up their weekends solely to support me—and Mike and crew who came to my rescue when my first L1 bird crashed. You made this all possible for me. I can't thank everyone enough, including mom and dad, for supporting my passion, allowing me to push it beyond the max, and living vicariously along with me.

The next step and the whole justification for getting my L3 is to fly an M-to-M two-stage rocket that is almost complete, with a test flight in May or June on K motors and the full up flight to around 30,000 feet at the NXRS research launch in July for ROCKETS Magazine.

David Harris plans to study Aerospace Engineering at Purdue or Boston University next fall on scholarships won in part due to his ability to excel in rocketry. He goes by the username 'Marsman' on Rocketry Planet. For his contribution of this article, he will receive a free Rocketry Planet T-shirt. This sponsorship is made possible by our friends at Graphix & Stuff, producers of high quality hobby apparel and vinyl signage. Want your own free gifts? Read the program details page for complete information.

Reader comments:
#1 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw

I'm sorry but I am NOT impressed. It's not a race. I don't care how much you think you know..

EDIT: Sorry I did not mean to sound so HARSH. Congratulations on 3 successful certs! well done.
Stickershock23 on 04-17-2011 11:53 PM
#2 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
Yo dude, congrats on joining the 18 L1-2-3 club! Doing so takes a certain level of a prior skill, and you've clearly got it -- so come on out to Purdue -- we've got the best applied aerospace propulsion labs in the country, and we need more people here with hands-on experience working with rockets (solids, liquids, and hybrids). My advisor keeps complaining about too many projects and not enough students, and if you like playing with weird grain designs, ignition transient modeling, full scale static tests, strand burns, studying under the professor who literally wrote the book (Chapter 6) on solids, and having all this at a school with a 20k' waivered field for TRA flying 20 minutes from campus, you can't go wrong here. Boiler up, and congrats again!

(somewhat biased Purdue PhD student)
daveyfire on 04-17-2011 11:57 PM
#3 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
I'm sorry but I am NOT impressed. It's not a race. I don't care how much you think you know..

Aw Mark, c'mon, it's not like it's never been done before... (Art? You out there too? Billy Davidson? We need safety in numbers... )
daveyfire on 04-17-2011 11:59 PM
#4 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
I'm sorry but I am NOT impressed. It's not a race. I don't care how much you think you know..

Normally I'm in the same camp. However in this case - when the best laid plans fell apart - this kid didn't roll over. He had the skill to LISTEN to his mentors and found a way to recover from pretty major setbacks and still succeed in one event.

I'm personally not that interested in a race to L3 - I like to savor things - but this person has been flying a long time, has experience "ahem" assisting on L motors and the like for a while, and has a special M-to-M two stage project he wants to pull off - all in support of his ultimate college career.

For once I'm not too bugged by the race to L3 mentality.
UncleVanya on 04-18-2011 12:03 AM
#5 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
Before any sort of controversy ignites, I and Oregon Rocketry had this discussion and we came to the conclusion that this was acceptable. 5 reasons:

1) The TRA certification rules specifically allow this to happen by not stipulating that a flier must have achieved the preceeding certification level before attempting the next one. There are two reasons why I and several TAP's believe this is the case: to allow fliers that have let their certifications lapse to jump right back in and to allow cases like mine where a flier has been flying and gaining experience under other's signatures to pass through.

2) Precedent: Art Hoag and potentially one or two others have done it before- launching in the week after their birthday.

3) The TRA TAP system checks back: I think that there is enough designed-in ambiguity to allow cases like mine (where I've been flying high power for 2 years, and K and L motors for a year now) or where people have let their certifications lapse to go through while having enough "checks and balances" to prevent cases that shouldn't.

Anybody wanting to certify L3 must convince their TAP's that they are ready- obviously someone who has never flown an H motor is never going to get TAP approval. They must also pass the written L2 test and fly a L2 flight with electronics successfully. Anybody who is able to meet these three criteria is qualified to make the L3 attempt, regardless of prior experience

4) The means justify the end: The reason why I did this is so that I can fly my M to M project and so that I can work with the rocketry research team at college next year as a Level 3 flier to enable us to fly at TRA events.

5) Insurance is not affected: From a legal standpoint, my flight was not more risky than anyone else's Level 3 class flight. All of the formal regulations had been followed, and any sort of stipulation that a flier must wait x amount of days/weeks/months between certifications does not guarantee that the flier will be improving their skills during that time period. It only adds needless complexity to the certification system. Everyone participates in rocketry differently, and it is impossible to objectively analyze who's way of approaching the activity is better.

Hope that clarifies things, and I don't want to step on anyone's toes.

David Harris
Marsman on 04-18-2011 12:33 AM
#6 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
Very impressive! Congrats to you, David. But I think the most impressive thing is your ability to save up enough money from your after-school job to pay for all the rockets you fly : )
DeeRoc29 on 04-18-2011 12:50 AM
#7 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
Hope that clarifies things, and I don't want to step on anyone's toes.

Congratulation, David. Don't worry about stepping on anyone's toes... you've got a plan, now take that to college and see what you can do with it! Good luck!

Wayne Day
a high school teacher who wishes I had kids with as much drive as you've shown in this project.
n5wd on 04-18-2011 01:00 AM
#8 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
He's lucky that he caught the mistakes before he made it to the pad. Some of stresses could have been avoided if he wasn't doing all 3 levels in one day.

A simple re-wording in the cert program in that the level 2 test and flight must be completed before any work on a Level 3 can begin. It has been said before: "It's not a race", and the Russians aren't out to beat you to the finish line either.

JDcluster on 04-18-2011 01:04 AM
#9 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
Those that feel this was too fast or wrong, simply do not get it. You are the same level of roadblocks that our government places in front of our youth.

We as a nation are failing. We are not giving our youth the chance to exceed, and become competetive worldwide. This is exactly why I started the Northwest Youth Rocketry Foundation. To stop and break down barriers.

Just because the normal folk cannot get L1 to 3 in a weekend is no reason to assume that no one can. Stop blocking and start helping. And if you cannot help, for whatever reason, then shut up...
Doclaser on 04-18-2011 01:16 AM
#10 Re: Article: 18 year-old flier knocks out L1-2-3 at Oregon�s First Thaw
I don't see anything wrong with this, if he can convince his TAPs he is ready what's the problem?
Californiaflyboy on 04-18-2011 01:25 AM
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