Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My Take on a Mid-Power Launch Pad

Having recently completed my first mid-power build (a Madcow Mozzie) I realized that I probably needed to upgrade my ground support equipment with a beefier pad. The two most readily available options looked like these:

Estes Porta-Pad E  While this is quite inexpensive and does come with a 1/4" rod, several reviews I read described it being crushed under the force of an F or G engine, so that ruled it out for me. (And also put to rest once and for all any thoughts of trying to use my standard Estes LPR pad!)

Aerotech Mantis  Reviews on this seem to be mixed. Some people say it is great, some people report issues. Plus it's huge and doesn't even break down well for storage. For $100+, I'd want something that was absolutely ideal. (Some people seem to like this because the rocket sits so high off the ground, making it easier to set up. Really? You can't get on your knees every now and then? Do you train flying monkeys to chase down your rockets?)

There are other (harder to find and equally expensive) options out there, but the general consensus on discussion boards seems to be to build your own out of PVC. Inexpensive, accessible, reliable, and - of course - fun.

I found plans/descriptions of a few things that came close to what I wanted, but they all have, to my mind, some shortcomings (see the appendix below). Ultimately I used these ideas and came up with my own design.

My criteria:
  • Low cost.
  • Easily obtainable parts.
  • Easy to build.
  • Compact for storage/transportation.
  • Adjustable launch rod angle.
  • Easy way to change launch rod diameters.

Parts List
1" PVC, 10' (*)

1.25" PVC, 5'

1" PVC side outlet
(Be sure all joints are slip-fit. Not everyone has this - Lowe's does)
1" PVC end cap (2)

1.25" PVC end cap

1" PVC couplers (2)

1.5" 1/4-20 thumb screws (2)

1/4-20 wing nuts (2)

2.5" 3/8-24 hex bolt

drill chuck
(Salvaged from an old cordless drill, but probably obtainable cheap at a thrift store)
stainless steel bowl or pot lid for blast plate
(from thrift store)

Total: $19.02 (Plus launch rod(s) - I went for 4 foot,  1/4" diameter stainless from a local supply house - less than $10)
Low cost - check!
Easily obtainable parts - check!

(*) Aside from strength, the choice of 1" PVC for the legs was deliberate. Since one leg is made adjustable with a telescoping tube arrangement, I needed two PVC sizes, one sliding neatly inside the other the other. 3/4" PVC does not fit into 1" PVC.

Tools needed: drill, drill bits, saw, PVC cement or other suitable glue. Optional but nice: drill press, mitre box

figure 1
  1. Cut the 1" PVC into three lengths. I did 16", 16", and 14". (Longer if you so desire)
  2. Cut off a 14" section of 1.25" PVC.
  3. Glue one 1" PVC end cap onto one (only one!) of the 16" PVC legs.
  4. Slide the 14" 1" PVC section into the 14" 1.25" section, with an inch or so sticking out. Drill 10 1/4" holes straight through both pieces at one inch intervals. A drill press would be ideal here because the idea is that you want the holes to line up no matter how far you slide in/out the 1" section, giving you an adjustable length leg that can be secured in place with the thumb screws and wing nuts. But even with my lousy drilling skills I was able to get this to work after widening the holes a bit. (See figure 3 below to see how this looks on the assembled pad.)
  5. Glue the 1.25" PVC end cap on to one end of 1.25" PVC section.
  6. Drill a 3/8" hole straight through the top of the PVC side outlet, all the way through to the bottom. Slide the 3/8-24 bolt through from the bottom and screw on the chuck (see figure 1)
  7. Drill a 1/4" hole in the center of your blast plate.

Easy to build - check! The hardest part for me was getting the chuck off the old drill.

Putting your launch pad to good use
figure 2
For storage/transport, Slide one holey leg all the way into the other and put in the thumbscrews/wing nuts to hold them together. Add the other two 16" legs onto this with the two 1" PVC couplers, storing your launch rods inside. This protects your rods during transport, and it all stores easily in the rafters of a garage or the corner of a closet. (OK, I know, the side-outlet-chuck, one PVC end cap, and the blast plate float around loose. Not perfect. I'm sure I'll forget to bring them to a launch one day.)
Compact for storage/transportation - check!

figure 3
To set up, separate the legs, remove the couplers, insert the legs into the tripod top, add the extra end cap on the third leg, put the launch rod in the chuck, and slide on your blast plate. Adjust the angle of your pad by removing the thumb screws and changing the length of the telescoping leg.
Adjustable launch rod angle - check!
Easy way to change launch rod diameters - check!

I just tested mine out last weekend, launching B through F engines with varying rod diameters, and it worked great.

I admit that the adjustable leg doesn't allow for a huge range of angular adjustment - maybe 6 degrees is all. But rarely if ever do I launch at a higher angle, and I especially wouldn't do it with a mid-power rocket.

One modification that I've made since this is to widen the blast plate hole to 3/8" and put in a 2" threaded wiring post from an old lamp. This will prevent the blast plate from tipping and wobbling so much at launch. I'm also considering creating an easy way to stake in the ends of the tripod legs to hold the pad solidly down.

Appendix - Inspiration

Four Legged Launch Pad by John DeMar
Judging from the number of references I've seen to these instructions, this seems like a very popular design. What I don't like about it however is the lack of angle adjustment, the less compact head assembly, and the fact that four legs could be inherently unstable on uneven ground.

This is an interesting idea for angular adjustment, but it's complex and bulky.

I think these two references show a great idea to allow for angular adjustment, and I think a drill chuck is ideal for holding/changing the rod. However, as noted in the discussion thread, a typical drill chuck has 3/8-24 mounting threads. Good luck finding a suitable eye bolt. I called all over town with no luck. I found them online for around $6 - but with $14 shipping. Ha! Still, if I ever feel like I really need this, it could easily be added to my rig as an upgrade.

NOTE:    These  instructions  are  presented  without  warranty  of  any  kind.  The  author  is  not   responsible  for  any  liability  or  loss  related  to  the  construction  and  operation  of  the  launch  pad. 


  1. Thanks for the nice write-up! I modified your instructions a bit to make the adjustable leg shrink instead of expand, which I think keeps the center of gravity lower and more stable when angling the launch pad. I think that gives it more angle to play with, too.

    And FYI, your parts list shows a 1.5" 3/8-24 hex bolt, but it should be a 2.5" bolt.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Good catch on the 3/8-24 bolt - I've corrected it as 2.5 inches.
      In actual use, I've rarely had to use the leg adjustment, and even then, I've never slid it out more than two holes. My though was to have the maximum overlapping area between the two sections as the "default", but it might be better to make the wider section a couple inches shorter to allow for adjustment in that direction.