Friday, July 12, 2013

Where and When?

There are always questions about where and when to launch. The circumstances vary wildly depending on where you live: city or rural, rainy or none-dry. And of course, what are the local laws and regulations? This is another topic that is interesting to revisit now that I'm a "responsible adult" rocketeer, as opposed to my days launching as a kid, without adult supervision. And I'm not lucky enough to live near friendly Farmer Brown and his gazillion acre fields. So I thought it would be interesting to document what I've learned in case anyone else can benefit from it - particularly any rocketeers in the Denver area.

I'll start by stating two assumptions: (1) All laws and regulations should be followed: those of the city, state, and the NAR. (2) You have a car to get you someplace (not really an option when I was a kid).

The first and most obvious answer is to launch with a club. Here in the Denver area there are CRASH and NCR, or farther south, COSROCS. I've launched with CRASH once and plan to do it again - especially when I'm launching high or with mid-power engines. But I also like to launch on my own schedule, with family and friends, sometimes making a picnic of it. So that is more the direction of this post: where can I do that?

There I several things to consider, so I'll discuss them in sections:

Finding a Site That is Physically Appropriate

NAR guidelines specify minimum site dimensions. Maybe there is an obvious spot near you, maybe not. I've used Google Maps to search for areas that look big and open, are mostly devoid of trees, and are public. Car accessibility is also a factor. But you can't tell everything from a map, so you need to scout it out to see what it really looks like. I'd rather launch in the soft, well-watered grass of a public park than in a field of tinder-dry brush or in the middle of a bunch of dirt and prairie dog holes.
Also, who else uses the park? A big open field is no good for a launch if it is full of soccer games. You need to be aware of the safety of others who won't be looking out for rockets. 
Finally, what borders the area? We all know that rockets can and do go out of the "minimum site dimensions." Could it land on private property? Power lines? In a lake? On the roof of the nearby rec center? On a highway?

Is It Legal to Launch There?

So you've got a site that you think will work. Is it legal? My initial assumption was to check fire codes, again turing to Google. In Denver (and every other municipality in the area that I've checked), the fire code does make a distinction between fireworks and model rockets. In all cases, the wording is something like this: 

The storage, handling and use of model 
and high-power rockets shall comply with the requirements 
of NFPA 1122, NFPA 1125, and NFPA 1127

Inconveniently, the NFPA rules are not immediately available online. But you can read (not download) them for free if you create a logon to the NFPA site. PITA, plus they then send you weekly (or more) emails about buying their products. But here it is in a nutshell:

NFPA 1122 -- Code for Model Rocketry - This is the NAR code, almost word for word. I don't know the history, but I think the NAR helped develop it. Hooray for the NAR!
NFPA 1125 -- Code for the Manufacture of Model Rocket and High Power Rocket Motors - A big N/A for me.
NFPA 1127 -- Code for High Power Rocketry - Maybe this will apply to me someday, but in that case I'd be off in the desert launching with NCR.

It is interesting to note that while the fire code makes a distinction between fireworks and model rockets, any fire fighters you talk to may not. Consider their perspective. They're not exactly in the business of encouraging people to find new ways to burn things fast and hot. If they aren't familiar with model rocketry, they may just assume that rocket = fireworks if you ask. I was lucky enough to speak with a very nice guy from the Denver FD who, despite a lack of familiarity, took my name and number, looked into it, and called me back a couple hours later to confirm that yes, I'm "good to go" in Denver.

But then there is another question. Recently I was launching in a public open space in Northglenn, Colorado. An officer drove up and approached - very friendly. I immediately told him that, though I'd never launched there before, I'd checked fire codes for the town. His answer was that while it may be OK according to fire codes, it may be against municipal codes. Though he said it in an odd sort of way, like he didn't know or care all that much. He checked out my gear, asked a few general question, took my name and number, and left with a friendly "be safe" and that was that.

(I'll also point out that, while he said that he saw a launch from the road and came to check it out, the area was also bordered with houses on one side. While I never got anything near them, that is something else to consider: Are nearby residents going to freak when they see missiles going up from the field near their house, and call the police? It may be legal, but it may also be a hassle for you and the police.)

I've honestly never known of a place where it was actually, all-around illegal to launch model rockets, but I'm sure some places exist. Bottom line: Ask the Fire Department. Ask the Police. CYA.

(You might also ask your local hobby shop or other rocketeers that you meet. I imagine the local hobby shop may have liability concerns about recommending places. As far as any other advice, I'll say it again: CYA.)

Really? Is It Legal to Launch There *Now*?

As I write this, at least half of Colorado's counties have fire restrictions in place due to wildfire danger. The rules on what constitutes a fire restriction vary by county, and even within counties there may be different stages or levels of restrictions - and they may split the county, with different restrictions in different areas. It gets complicated. And on top of that, there may also be municipal or state-wide bans. And not every county or city clearly posts when there is or is not a ban in place. Colorado just lifted its statewide ban a week ago, and the only way I know is from a Denver Post article that came up in a Google search.

One handy place to check for county fire restrictions is the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.
The Denver Fire Department can be contacted at 720-913-3473 Monday through Friday, and they've always been helpful when I've called to check on things.

There are a couple big parks in the area that I like for launching. One is in Golden, but Jefferson County is always among the first to enact fire restrictions, so this year and last, this has been out from late spring through summer. I've launched many times at Ruby Hill Park in Denver. It's not perfect - it's surrounded by big trees, and beyond them are power lines. But while I've had a couple of severe weathercocking launches, I've never gone near the power lines or surrounding roads (though I did have to wade into a pond once) and I've never lost a rocket in a tree. The Denver FD has confirmed for me that I'm OK to launch there. The center of the park is a big basin (the name Ruby Hill strikes me as the opposite of what it should be) that is never overly dry, and that section has no soccer fields or anything. I never see more than the occasional person stroll through, though the nearby playground gets a lot of action, and I have had a landing there. It's a bit of a walk from the parking area to the center of the field, but it is a pleasant setting, and feels surprisingly isolated given its location.

Update - 12/2016: It gets even more complicated. I was with a small group of friends and their kids, many launching their first rockets, at Ruby Hill Park a couple months ago. We were approached by a ranger from Denver Parks (who even know that never parks had rangers?) who told us that although it is OK with municipal and fire codes, launching is a violation of parks codes. Jeez, how can you ever know? He was super friendly, and lest us do a last launch or two, but then we shut it down. Sadly no more launches at Ruby Hill.

Since I first wrote this post over three years ago, I've attended many launches with CRASH, NCR, SCORE, and even one with Tripoli Colorado. Unfailingly, they are fun and friendly. So while I'll miss the family-only spur-of-the-moment option, it looks like it will only be club launches for us from here on in. (Unless we make a new friend with loads of empty farmland!)

DISCLAIMER NOTE:    This information  presented  only as my personal experience, and is not intended as specific or authoritative advice..  The  author  is  not   responsible  for  any  liability  or  loss  related  to  the  launches of others, and all individuals are responsible for selecting and verifying the viability of their own launch areas.. 

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