by Trip Barber, NAR 4322
Rocket clubs exist to support flying rockets, so your Section has to have a launch site in order to survive. With a great site, you can do more than survive, you can thrive and grow. But how do you find a place to fly? First, you have to decide what you need to have in order to support your members’ interests, and what your minimums are. If you are a high-power oriented Section, you will need a pretty big field — minimum site dimension at least 1500 feet with airspace above it that supports an FAA waiver and an access road to a launch spot that is 1500 feet or more from any road or inhabited building. If you are a model rocket/student outreach oriented section, then a city park or a couple of football fields might do and the FAA waiver does not matter. Or maybe you can structure the Section’s activities so that you can operate with a good HPR field that you can only use a few times a year, with a smaller model rocket field available for more frequent use in between. Be realistic; near an East Coast metropolitan area, you are probably not going to get a site that supports “O” motor flights to 30,000 feet or one that you can fly on seven days a week!
Attributes of a Good Launch Site
In addition to overall size, which determines how large a rocket you can fly on a launch site, and to what altitude, it important to remember to check for other features:
- Access — can people and vehicles reach the part of the site where the launch pads are going to be located without a major overland hike (and carry)
- Parking — are there places with suitable surface for the number of cars that you expect (fliers and spectators) to be able to park without getting stuck or damaging the property
- Bathroom facilities — if there are none built-in or nearby, then you are going to have to rent a porta-potty for every launch, which can add $100/month to your budget
- Recovery area — beyond the cleared area that you will be using as the official “launch site”, are there trees, houses, or crops cluttering the areas where rockets may drift under recovery,
- Fire hazard — is the ground covered with vegetation that is likely to become dry and be a burn hazard for rockets lifting off from pads or those that may crash before ejection
- Seasonal limits – is the field a farmer’s crop field that is only available when the crops are not growing, or is it a field with poor drainage that makes access impassable if it rains
Finding the Launch Site.
The key to finding a launch site is energy. Make it your Section’s top priority and put someone with initiative, available time, and good interpersonal skills in charge — but with everyone else in the Section contributing ideas and legwork. Pursue every option; do not assume that any promising lead will result in success until it is actually finalized, and keep pursuing every angle until then. If you end up with two sites, so much the better! Here are some ideas for where and how to look:
- Personal contacts. Does anyone know about a possible spot already, or know somebody who might? Does anyone have a contact with a local agency (park authority, school district, farmer collective, sod farmer, etc.) who might control tracts of open land, or with a farmer or rancher who might own such a tract? Does anyone have a connection through 4-H, NAR’s partners in aerospace education? Is there a connection (TARC team, etc.) to a school with a large set of athletic fields? Have everyone in the section ask everyone they know.
- Google Earth. Use this online service to do “aerial reconnaissance” of your area for open fields without having to rent your own airplane to do it!
- U.S. Geological Survey Maps. These fine-scale maps (generally 1 inch = 2000 feet) show topography, major tree stands, power lines, water courses, and urban development. They are available from local map stores or stores that support hikers, campers, or hunters.
- Regional Plan Commission. Most metropolitan areas have some form of regional planning commission or a council of governments agency . Aerial maps and surveys are often used by the commissions to record changes. Most areas are surveyed about every five years with the results being made into maps of approximately 1 inch=400 feet for the urban areas and 1 inch=8000 feet for the rural sections. You can get a print showing about 4 to 8 square miles for a small fee. In order to find out which agency serves the areas you want to look at, contact: National Association of Regional Councils, 1700 K Street, NW, Washington DC 20006.
- County Plat Books. You can obtain these from your county office, usually from the County Agricultural Agent, or from map stores. Details shown include the owner of the land, the acreage, and an outline of the shape of a piece of property.
- Zoning Maps: This may not be a source of finding open fields, but it will be important to know if the field that you find is zoned for the kind of recreational use represented by rocket flying — particularly if you are going to be holding big launches with lots of traffic that gets noticed by local citizens.
Using the Airspace
If you plan to fly high-power rockets at your launch site, you will have to get prior approval for each launch event from the Federal Aviation Administration. This approval is granted as a “waiver” to use the nation’s airspace, which FAA controls. The FAA has exempted model rockets (G motors and below, rockets weighing 1500 grams or less) from requiring such prior approval. For larger rockets, you must apply for an FAA waiver using the procedures described on the NAR website. Before you commit to a launch site, if you plan to use it for high power, you need to contact the FAA to verify that there are no special restrictions on airspace use at that spot that would prevent you from ever getting a waiver, and to see what the maximum flight altitude is for which they will grant a waiver..
Once you have an FAA waiver, you are required to call the regional FAA Air Traffic Control (ATC) facility the day before your launch to activate the waiver. The ATC office will publish a NOTAM or NOtice To AirMen regarding an unmanned rocket launch with location, diameter and altitude of affected airspace. Pilots flying in the area should check NOTAMs for their route of flight. The waiver or authorization provides us with the FAA’s approval to use the airspace. ATC will not vector IFR traffic through the waiver cylinder, and they will provide advisories to VFR traffic requesting flight following, but there is no expectation by the FAA that VFR pilots will avoid the area. In general, pilots are governed by FAR 91.13, “Careless or reckless operation – No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” Buzzing the launch area at low altitude or intentionally colliding with airborne rockets would be reckless, but simply flying into an area of unmanned rocket launching, or parachute jumping, or high terrain, is not reckless behavior. The bottom line is that the responsibility for avoiding conflicts with manned aircraft rests with the launch officials. The launch airspace is not sanitized for our use. Per FAR 101.23 (a)(4) “You must operate an amateur rocket in such a manner that it does not create a hazard to persons, property, or other aircraft.”
Gaining Permission to Use the Launch Site
Locating the Owner
If a club member knows a landowner personally, your problem is easy. If you locate open land without knowing who its owner is, neighboring property owners may be able to tell you all you need to know to locate that owner. When dealing with neighbors be polite and do more listening than talking. Remember that if you gain use of the land these people will be affected, and it pays to have them sympathetic to your goals and needs rather than asking for injunctions against your activities and signing petitions to have you evicted later.
If personal contact is not an option, county land records will reveal the owners of a given tract of land although the process of going through records to determine this may be time-consuming. If the land is controlled by one person, your approach can be direct and personal. However, if the land is controlled by a government agency, other organization, or private business, you will have to find out who the key people are in that entity and how to set up your approach to them. If the governing body is an elected group (School Board, Parks Commission, etc.), it is best to work through the full-time staff before approaching that body for an approval.
Whether dealing with an individual or an organization in requesting a launch site, your whole approach must be planned in advance. If you can, use people who are skilled in either sales or public relations as your representatives; certainly use people who look professional and can present your case articulately. Whoever approaches the owner has to get across an image of mature, responsible people who are involved in a safe, family-oriented activity that is a great influence on young people. Have your documentation, particularly on safety and on the NAR insurance, well prepared and use it judiciously. Bring an example rocket and some photographs of a launch. Sell your self, your hobby, the NAR, and your Section. Emphasize the value of rocketry as an educational activity for young people and what you will be doing to include them in your activities on the site. Be sure to mention the magnitude of the rocketry hobby, with more than one million fliers nationwide each year. Emphasize the NAR’s international activities such as world championships teams, which bring honors to the US, and our sponsorship of the Team America Rocketry Challenge national student rocketry program, with the base for all of this being the local NAR Sections like yours all across the country. Use appropriate safety-related materials drawn from those posted on the NAR website as part of your pitch to the owner — as a minimum the “Sport Rocket Safety Handout” that is also posted in the files at the bottom of this page, or the more comprehensive “Launch Site Land Owner’s Packet”.
Put yourself in the landowner’s shoes. How would you feel if someone came to you and asked for the use of your land for an activity with which you were totally unfamiliar? This gets magnified when you have to deal with an elected committee where every member could have different questions or concerns. On a committee, seldom can one member grant you permission to use the land, but quite often one member’s opinion or vote can deny you the use of the property. The risk-averse decision is to say “no”; you have to offer more powerful reasons for the key decision-makers to say “yes”. The property owner is not primarily concerned about whether you and your club are protected by NAR insurance and whether the hobby is safe for you; he or she wants to be sure that he or she is protected and that the activity offers minimal risks to them. So the fact that they are protected through your NAR site owner coverage is the point to stress. Get a site owner insurance certificate made out to cover the prospective site owner and take it to hand him at your “clinch the deal” meeting; NAR headquarters can arrange one of these with a couple of weeks notice.
If you are dealing with land owned by the government, your case will have to include the issue of equity of access for public recreational activities. Other activities with comparable numbers of participants are permitted to use public property under appropriate conditions, and your request is for a comparable right of access. Make sure that you know what other activities or operations are already using the site, so you can present a plan to work around or work with these other already-approved users. Emphasize the support you will be providing to young people and educational programs — and then make sure that you do this when you use the field. If you are dealing with land controlled by the military, you will have significant challenges with security concerns; free and open access by the public is not in the cards, so your request would have to include a way to ensure that the military commander will know in advance who will be on the facility and how access to other parts of the facility will be controlled.
Sealing the Deal
It may be necessary, and is probably desirable in any case, to put on a demonstration launch for the site owner in order to show them what the activity really involves and prove its safety before you can get approval. Once they see rockets fly — if they never have before — it is almost always a positive. They may even like it enough to become fliers themselves! Naturally, make sure that you put on your best effort of safe, reliable rockets for any demonstration and talk the owner through the safety procedures and the access, crowd control, and parking procedures that you will enforce at launches.
It often requires more than the approval of the land owner in order to conduct rocket launch activities on a site. While model rocketry and high power rocketry, when conducted in accordance with the NAR Safety Codes, are legal activities in all 50 states, some states impose specific restrictions on the activity (California being the worst example of this) and many local jurisdictions require some form of either notification or prior approval of the fire marshal. It is prudent and highly recommended that before you commit to a launch site you meet with the fire marshal having jurisdiction over the site to make him aware of what you plan to do there and build a relationship with him just as you did with the land owner. See the page in this Section Manual on Laws and Regulations for more information and resources on safety, particularly fire safety. The fact that NAR rocketry is recognized and its safety and launch site requirements are codified in Codes 1122 (Model Rockets) and 1127 (High Power Rockets) by the National Fire Protection Association will be a very powerful part of your discussion with any fire marshal.
Keeping the Launch Site
Access to a launch site is a privilege, not a right. The land owner is graciously allowing a bunch of strangers to fly on his land, and is unlikely to be making enough money (if any) from your use to compensate for any aggravation this may cause. And the neighbors are part of the deal, as your activity creates noise and traffic that affects them as well. The land, its owner, and your neighbors should be treated as friends; do not abuse your privilege of use. Be good neighbors and tenants, and work to create an environment that protects your flying site and your privilege to fly there. Include them in your events (not just launches, but any picnics or other social events) and treat them as VIP’s when they do. Give them club memberships. Give them small gifts that show you appreciate their support, even if you are paying a site usage fee. Have clear rules of procedure and behavior that protect the site owner’s property and the neighbors’ sensibilities that you enforce at your launches. Since your club is a group rather than an individual, field rules must be enforced by the RSO (and every club member) with concern for keeping the field and not for avoiding the possibility of hurting a flier’s feelings. The most important thing is keeping the flying site.
Suggested Launch Site Rules
1. Park only in designated areas.
2. Spectators are not permitted in the launch pad area.
3. Small children must be accompanied by an adult at all times.
4. The NAR Safety Codes must be adhered to for all flights, all of the time.
5. Each flier is responsible for any property damage he or she causes.
6. No retrieval of rockets from neighboring property without the owner’s permission.
7. All trash must be placed in appropriate receptacles and none may be left behind on the field.
8. Instructions and warnings from the RSO will be adhered to by all flyers and spectators.
If you are using private property, you should compensate the owner in some manner, explicitly (by an agreed fee) or indirectly (by gifts or donations). If you are using public property, such as schoolyards or parks, without a use fee then consider sponsoring a benefit event (launch, auction, raffle, etc.) with entry fees or using proceeds from a concession stand at launches (if one is permitted) to provide funds for a donation of something of value to that organization. Invite your landowner and neighbors to the annual club banquet or barbecue and remember them at holidays with a gift. Never take for granted the people or organization whose good graces make it possible for your Section to do what it exists to do — fly rockets.
|Federal Aviation Regulations on Rockets||May 24, 2014, 11:31 pm||19 KB|
|Launch Site Land Owners Packet||May 24, 2014, 11:31 pm||2 MB|
|Sport Rocket Safety Handout||May 24, 2014, 11:31 pm||69 KB|
|How to do High Power Rocketry Safely presentation||March 12, 2017, 4:04 am||3 MB|