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Truck Camper Rocket Launcher

Gary Lech’s 2015 Lance 1172 takes him to the launch pad where he fires eight-foot Level 3 rockets 14,500 feet into the atmospheres of Oregon and Nevada.  Three, two, one…


If Gary Lech walked around a shopping mall with one of his rockets, he would be on the national news that evening, and not in a good way.  We’re talking seriously big rockets, the kind that you have to call ahead to the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Guard, and other government organizations before even thinking about launching into controlled airspace.  These are not your everyday bottle rockets kids.

Fortunately, Gary is on our team.  As an avid truck camper, Gary uses his 2015 Lance 1172 to get to Oregon Rocketry Club events where he camps for long weekends of rocket launches and camaraderie.  After reading Gary’s description of rocket events all over the country, we have put a few into our 2015 calendar.  See you on the flight line.


Above: Gary ready to launch a scale replica of the NASA ARCAS sounding rocket. It flew to 2,300′.

TCM: How did you get into truck camping?

Gary: My wife and I are former wilderness tent campers and backpackers.  When I retired in 2006, we moved from California to Oregon.  That’s about when we decided to move up to something more comfortable than a tent.  I started by buying the biggest truck I could find, a 2007 Ford F-350 dually.  Then I found a used 2004 Eagle Cap 1150 truck camper, which we used for eight years.

The 2004 Eagle Cap was built by the original Eagle Cap company, Intermountain RV.  Unfortunately, the slide failed repeatedly, even after factory repair.  The third time we had problems, we decided to trade it in on something new.


Above: Gary and Sally’s Lance 1172 on the road to the Oregon Rocketry launch site near Brothers, Oregon

We talked about going to a fifth wheel because, being in our 60s, the truck camper was starting to get a little difficult to get in and out of.  Then we decided the side door 2015 Lance 1172 truck camper was a better fit for us.  My wife really wanted the couch and double slide, so the 1172 made perfect sense.  The 1172 is also more comfortable for us to get in and out of.  Besides, we like the freedom a truck camper provides.

The rig rides like a Cadillac when the camper is on the truck.  However, when the camper is off, it rides like a truck.  Let’s just say you don’t want to be sitting in the back seat.  I haul pellets for heat.  I can have two tons of pellets in the back.  My truck likes driving with a load.

Our truck camper allows us to get to remote places and be comfortable.  It’s a great excuse to go out and wander around in the sage brush.  If we didn’t have the rockets, people would think we were weird.  We get to scare the jack rabbits and see beautiful places in the country.  All of these rocket areas are spectacular, magical places.

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Above: One of Gary’s rockets launching into the atmosphere

TCM: How did you get into rocketry?

Gary: I’m a retired geek.  When I was a kid, I launched rockets as a hobby.  As part of my new retirement, my wife bought me a small rocket kit for Christmas.  She put a note with it that said, “Here’s something you can do in retirement”.  After launching small rockets a few times, I got hooked on it again.  I am a born again rocketeer.

I found a network of clubs and joined the Oregon Rocketry Club.  One thing led to another, and rocketry became the center of another expanding universe.

As I got into it, my rockets got bigger and bigger, and my flying got higher and higher.  It’s a great group of smart people who are involved in this activity.  There are lots of engineers and tech workers like myself.  It is a good fit amongst the people who do this thing we call amateur rocketry.  The sky is the limit of what you can do and how high you can fly.  In fact, there was just recently a new record of 118,000 feet by an amateur rocketry team at Black Rock playa in Nevada.


Above: The Black Rock Desert playa in northern Nevada.  This site is a major destination for amateur rocketry enthusiasts.  It’s also where the Burning Man festival is held.

TCM: Tell us about the rocketry events you attend with your truck camper.

Gary: This year I went to nine different events.  Two of the events were in Nevada at the Black Rock Desert playa, and the rest were in Oregon.  They literally happen every month somewhere.  The midwest, Pacific northwest, and northeast shut down during the winter months.  Down in the south, in California, Arizona, and Florida, there are events year round.

As far as events, there’s a little bit of everything.  There are individual rocketeers.  They launch their own rockets.  For more complex rockets a handful of people will get together and form a team.  It’s not real organized.  These things are organic in how they come together.  People hook up and elect to do a project together.


Above: Gary’s rocket lifting off at the AEROPAC XPRS launch event on the Black Rock playa

TCM: Can the public attend the rocket events?

Gary: Spectators are welcome at the rocket events.  There are costs involved in hosting the rocket events, so each organization decides if there is a fee to attend.  The events at Black Rock charge a nominal fee for the jurisdiction of the land.  It is BLM at Black Rock so the fee is usually nominal.  I think it was $10.


Above: Gary’s rig in the camping field at the Oregon Rocketry, NXRS event

TCM: What is the camping situation like at the rocket events?

Gary: The events are typically on a weekend; a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.   Everyone is lined up with their RVs, campers, or tents on the flight line.  It is fun to stroll the flight line and talk to people.  There are campfires in the evening.  We watch the sunset, and drink a little wine.

It’s a fun, good group of people ranging in ages.  There are lots of adults and kids coming with their parents.  Typically it’s five years old and up.  There’s lots of camaraderie and chatting.

Some people come out in cars and vans and tent camp.  Back east, the host organizations don’t have camping on the flight lines.  You have to drive to the event each day.  I find that very inconvenient and won’t go to those events.

Some launches have a chuck wagon and porta potti.  Otherwise you are on your own for food, water, and bathroom access.  It can be hot and dry.

TCM: I’m guessing you have some alternative power on your camper since you’re dry camping in the desert.  How long can you go with the capabilities of your camper?

Gary: I have a solar panel and generator in my camper.  We don’t like to use the generator.  It’s a sore spot at the events because no one likes to hear them and people will run generators all the time.

My wife and I being former tent campers, don’t like them.  In eight years of truck camping, we put fifty hours on our generator.  I might run it once a month for maintenance, or fifteen minutes while we use the microwave.

The nice thing about launch events being in the desert is that our solar panel gives us all the juice we need.  With full propane and water, we can easily dry camp for a few days.

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Above: Oregon Rocketry Fillible’s Follies event, Sheridan, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Rod Moorehead.

TCM: How did you get involved with the Oregon Rocketry Club?

Gary: I attended one of their launches and immediately joined.  There are rocketry clubs all over the country.  There are also two national organizations that provide oversight and rules and regulations to the launch events.

There’s Tripoli Rocketry Association and the National Association of Rocketry.  The focus of the national organizations are somewhat similar, which is to promote amateur rocketry.  But they each have a different philosophy.

The National Association of Rocketry has competitions and educational activities for kids and youth groups.  Their focus is promoting rocketry to young people and into careers in aerospace.

Triply Rocketry is for experimental rocketry, like fabricating motor formulas.  That’s the organization to fly under for extreme projects.

I am a member of both.  They provide the insurance for rocketry activity.  Local clubs fly under their rules.  There are competitions, but not every organized launch event has competitions.  It’s up to the host agency.

TCM: How do you make your own rockets?

Gary: You can buy kits.  That’s how people start out.  Estes makes kits for kids.  You can get small model rocket kits at Walmart for as little as $10.  It goes up from there.  For the large scale projects like the one that flew to over 100,000 feet, it’s a custom build.  Those can be four or five figures in cost.  That’s another reason why a team approach is typical, so costs are shared.  Some teams have sponsors.  Big name companies sometimes kick in to be associated with the build and launch.

The high powered kits, like mine, are in the $200 to $300 range to purchase, including the kit that I purchased for level three certification.


Above: Level 3 certification flight; a 4″ diameter 8′ long rocket, flying on an M1297 motor that went to 14,500 feet

TCM: One of the photos was labeled, “My successful Level 3 Certification flight.  The rocket is 4″ diameter 8′ long flying on an M1297 motor.  It flew to 14,500 feet.”  Do you have to be certified to participate with the rocketry organizations?

Gary: There are three levels of certification.  My kit for Level 3 Certification was about $275 dollars.  I kept track of my time building it.  It was about 100 hours of build time.  It flies to about 14,000 feet.  Flying it is a whole day event with the prep, launch pad, recovery, clean up, and doing post flight data analysis.  You only need a certification to fly high power rockets.

The model rockets are little and are launched again and again.  Those are fun to do with kids.  With the little rockets, you don’t have to think too hard.  The small rockets are inherently safer and there is less risk.  You do not need a certification to fly model rockets.


Above: The rockets being prepped before the flight

Above: A video of one of Gary’s rockets being launched

TCM: What kind of preparation do you have to go through before the launch?

Gary: With the model rockets, it’s easy.  There’s one tricky part and that is to make sure that you have flame protection between the motor and ejection charge.

With a rocket, the motors provide boost and there’s an ejection charge consisting of a bit of black powder.  It’s a charge that pushes the parachute out and the nose cone comes off.  You need flame protection so you don’t burn a hole in the parachute.  Flame retardant insulation is stuffed in the rocket.  Then you carefully pack the parachute so it will deploy correctly, and put the nose cone on.

Then you insert the motor, which is a little round canister in the tail end of the rocket.  You fill out a flight card, and take it to the range safety officer.  He or she asks you questions and signs off, inspects the launch pad, and puts it on the launch rail.

You insert the ignitor, which is a wire with a small amount of charge on the end.  The rocket is ignited with an electronic charge.  There is no fuse or match.  These rockets are all ignited electrically.  The rocket goes on the rail and the leads are hooked up to the ignitor.  You walk back to the flight line and the launch control officer pushes the button and launches your rocket.

It’s more complex when you have a high power rocket.  It’s more complicated because the motor requires pre-assembly.  I buy commercial motors.  They are a formulation with a small solid rocket propellant, like on the NASA rockets.  I have to assemble the motor which consists of fuel grains that get inserted into a metal canister.  For the complex projects, you have electronics that are used to deploy charges for the recovery system.

After the motor burnout, at peak altitude, the rockets deploy a small parachute, and descend quickly to lower altitude.  At a lower altitude, like around 1000 feet, the main parachute is deployed.  This is called dual deployment.  The rocket lands, at a slow speed so that nothing gets damaged.

If you deploy a big parachute at high altitude, a rocket might drift miles away making recovery a challenge.  If you’re in an area where there is population or trees, you need to stay within the landing zone so that your rocket doesn’t land in neighborhoods.  So, we need to have dual deployment.

That’s why the Black Rock playa location is so well liked for amateur rocketry.  The landing zone is miles.  You have lots of opportunities to get your rocket down within a defined space, making recovery easier.

TCM: How is safety monitored for the more risky flights?

Gary: Before each flight, rockets are inspected by a range safety officer and you fill out a flight card.  If it’s complex, you have a check list.  The range safety officer inspects your rocket and makes sure everything is ready to fly.  At that point you are going to the launch pad and following a checklist.  It becomes a personal responsibility to make sure everything is prepared including the parachute.  The parachute is what descends the rocket in a safe and controlled manner.

There’s a launch control officer who controls the rocket, and monitors activities at the pads.  He or she makes sure all the launch operations are performed in a manner that is safe and controlled.  There are a number of checks and balances to make sure it’s safe.

All rockets are flown under FAA rules.  If you fly on your own, you need to have a waiver under FAA.  With Oregon Rocketry, it is a controlled airspace.  They get waivers from two national guard units.  There’s a flight director who is part of the process.  The flight director sets up the weekend flight activities with the air space regulators, FAA, and military organizations in the air space.


Above: Cars and RVs lined up on the flight line at an Oregon Rocketry event. Photo courtesy of Rod Moorehead.

There’s a flag line that’s stretched out called the flight line.  Everyone has to be behind it when the rockets go off.  The launch control officer will call if the range is open or closed.  If it’s open, people can go out past the flight line.  At that point people can go out to position their rocket for flight and then get behind the flight line.  People are not running all over the flight line.  Spectators can not go past unless they are with a flier.

The events are very organized.  It’s not chaotic at all.  That’s why I like doing this.


Above: Sally with Jack and Nick at Waldo Lake, Oregon

TCM: You have two dogs, Jack and Nick.  What do they think of truck camping?  How do they do with the rocket launches?

Gary: They do well with the rocket launches.  With other dogs, it can be a problem.  I have had that experience.  There’s a good reason to keep dogs on a leash. If your dog runs off, it could be coyote meat.  Our dogs don’t mind.  They like going camping and they enjoy getting out, hiking, and sniffing everything.  They know the routine.


Above: Gary fishing Saddleback Lake in California

TCM: What else do you like to do with your truck camper?

Gary: There are occasional fishing and sightseeing trips.  My wife and I typically go on two or three trips a year, and usually the rockets come along with us.

We like to camp in the wilderness.  Our ideal camping spot is right on a creek or a river with nobody else around.

On our most recent trip, we went out for twenty days and cruised parts of the Oregon outback we hadn’t been to before.  We went to Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada, and then went into eastern Oregon where we finished up at a rocket launch.

In past years we have gone south to California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in the winter.  We’ve also been down to the Florida Keys.  Our camper gets used a lot.


Above: After just one flight at the BALLS23 event, the weather on the Black Rock playa started to turn foul.  When it rains the hard pan turns into a mud bath and travel is impossible.

TCM: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your rocket launches or your truck camping lifestyle?

Gary: With a truck camper you can go anywhere and not have to worry about getting stuck.  You can get out in the sage brush and not have to worry about turning a bigger vehicle around.  The truck camper is the perfect vehicle for rocketry because the rocket launch sites are not always very navigable, and it’s all dry camping.

Spectators are welcome.  We would love to have more truck campers on the flight line!

Truck: 2007 Ford 350 Super Duty, crew cab, dually, long bed, four wheel drive, diesel
Camper: 2015 Lance 1172
Tie-downs/Turnbuckles: Torklift Fastguns
Suspension: Torklift Upper StableLoads, Firestone Airbags
Gear: N/A

Do you have a neat hobby on the road like Gary Lech does with his rockets?  Maybe you go metal detecting, bass fishing, or photograph wildlife.  Please share your story about your unique hobby on the road.

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