Originally printed in Extreme Rocketry Magazine
Rocketry is one of those things you do in life that has no in-between. You have either a complete success, or an unmitigated disaster. Every flight, including failures, is a new andunforgettable learning experience. While some of the disasters can be attributed to bad or defective equipment or materials, a lot of failures can be attributed to incorrect preparation.You certainly feel bad when you forget wadding in your Big Bertha, but it pales in comparison to forgetting something when flying your Big Kahuna. And the more we pay attention to the successes and failures of others and ourselves, the more we learn and the better our chances are for successful flights in the future.
Flights with a regular model rocket are basic. Wadding-parachute-motor-igniter-plug and you're off to get a launch pad. Mid- and high-power rockets are more complex, so more things can go wrong. The lack of proper preparation reminds me of one flight I saw. The rocket represented a considerable investment of time, effort and money for this person. The lift-off, boost and coast were perfect, and separation charge fired at apogee. However, during separation, everybody saw the one little "oops" this rocketeer forgot: to fasten the shock cord to both sections of the rocket. The upper part of the rocket came in under parachute, but the booster came in ballistic. Ouch.
Trying to document all of the possible ways to go wrong would fill a James Michner novel. Here is a small list of failures what I have either witnessed or been guilty of myself: All it takes is something like a forgotten O-ring in the motor and you get a CATO. Or there's not fastening the shock cord correctly and you get more pieces coming down than went up. Forgetting to arm the recovery electronics gets you a ballistic rather than parachute recovery. Using the wrong size launch rod will send your rocket off in unwanted directions, if it cleared the rod at all. Forgetting wadding turns your parachute into either a melted wad or the equivalent of a screen door, both bad for future flights. Not verifying your CG on assembly can turn your vertical flight into a horizontal one. That's not a good way to get the crowd to do the Wave.
Since we are all rocket scientists, I decided to take a "page" from the professional rocket scientists and write check-off lists, or "procedures" as they call them, for rocket preparation and launch evolutions. Even in the middle of the Apollo 13 disaster, everybody had a procedure for everything. If there wasn't one, you wrote it to make sure everybody was clear on what they needed to have and what they were supposed to do. This made sure everybody was "on the same page."
Procedures are essential to a person like me. I would forget my head, as the saying goes, if it wasn't permanently attached. I run down a procedure to make sure I don't forget something every time I leave the house. If I didn't, I would leave at least one essential thing behind, every time. I started using procedures years ago when I was SCUBA diving. It is embarrassing to get to the dive site and discover you forgot your weight belt, regulator or fins (or all of them) as I did on several occasions.
The source of my organization comes from my Palm Pilot. Not only do I use it to help keep me organized, I can also recover flight data from my onboard computer into it while on the flight line as well. I mention Palm specifically because there is a shareware program called HandyShopper that I use for these lists. I use the Aisle #'s as step #'s so that I can easily adjust the order of things in a procedure if I have to. In practice, after completing a step, I merely check it off, just like if I had just grabbed the bread or eggs. If you don't have a handheld computer, clipboards and paper served the professionals for years.
The best way to develop your own procedures is to sit in a quiet area and go through everything in your mind, start to finish. After you have imagined them, write them down and go through the list again. Then go and perform the procedure, adding notes and adding/changing steps as you go. As with all endeavors in our lives, your mileage may vary. The standard that you should aim for is that anybody can understand and complete your procedures. Imagine yourself in a full body cast with your jaw wired shut. A fellow rocketeer of approximate experience should be able to get you to the range, prep and fly your rocket without any "input" from you.
The first list is the material preparation procedure. You make sure your rockets are ready, double check you have everything, test electronics, dip a few igniters, whatever you need to do to make yourself ready. This will prevent the proverbial running around like a headless chicken the morning of the launch, which cuts into flying time. Doing this over an evening or two during the week gets you 90% ready. All you have to do the night before is quickly check everything before packing it into the car to make sure no one has "borrowed" something. I verify my range box, motor box, etc. are properly stocked by writing in the bottom or on the cover of every compartment what is supposed to be there, so anything missing jumps out you.
Next you can concentrate on the family. Lay out clothes for everybody, make sure your club ID's, cash for range fees and so on are on hand (preferably packed in your range box).
The next procedure is car-packing. The order that I use to pack the vehicle is the opposite of what I will need on the range. Things that have to come out first (tables, chairs, etc.) go in last. If you pack everything but food and drink the night before, you can do it calmly and you have the time and leisure to double-check and properly secure the items. You also make sure the vehicle is up to the job. Check the fluids, tires, gas and so on. If your alarm doesn't go off and you wake up late on launch day, you can jump into your clothes, dash out to the car and drive off, with the worst consequences being you have forgotten food, drinks and family members.
Once you are on the range and set up, you can relax a bit and take a break. Fly some model rockets, catch up with club members, volunteer as RSO/LCO for a shift, whatever. Your prior planning has given you this break.
Once you are ready to launch a big rocket, pull out its' pre-flight procedure. You will probably need an individual procedure for each of your HPR rockets. This procedure should take your rocket from cold (unprepared) to warm (ready for RSO and the launch pad). The number of individual steps is not important. Clarity of the steps is important. Thirty-seven steps to load and secure the motor into the rocket might be a bit of overkill, but you don't want to have just "stick it in and tape it down" either. Make sure your flight card is filled out, electronics are installed and ready, your CP/CG ratio is good and everything is connected and ready to go.
Now comes the final countdown. Get your rocket approved by the RSO, draw a pad from the LCO, and head out with the rocket and your final preparation procedure. Verify the launch pad can handle your rocket, put the rocket on the pad, insert the igniter, arm the electronics, take the rocket from warm to hot (ready) and head back to the range head to ready your cameras.
If you have invested the time in developing your procedures, you have eliminated 98% of human error on your part. You have done everything you could to ensure a safe flight that ends in a recovered rocket.
The investment of time you spend at home developing these procedures will save countless hours and rockets on the range. As the military puts it, "The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you will bleed in wartime."
Safe and successful flying!
Remember, the things you need FIRST go in LAST.