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Contest Strategy for Beginners

by Tim Van Milligan of Apogee Components, Inc.

Note: While this article applied to a specific event that occurred in the past, the information is still relevant.

The COSROCS Pikes Peak or Blast rocket competition being held the last weekend in June offers a nice selection of events that would be easy for the beginning competitor to try; and I think to do very well. This article will give my opinions as what type of model the beginning competitor can use to not only get qualified flights, but actually have the winning entry!

"1/4A" Altitude
For this event, I'd recommend the Apogee "Centrix" rocket kit. It seems to be designed for the altitude events. The small size, light weight, and low price make it well suited to flying "out-of-sight." The engine of choice would be the Apogee 10.5mm 1/4A2-4 motor. Since there is no NAR record for this event, the winner will also hold the honor of being the nation's best! But to receive the "official record" you have to be a member of the NAR; so it might be a good time to send in your membership application.

When building the model, remember to keep the weight low; as this will probably determine who flies the highest - so use glue sparingly. Just as important, make sure you sand a good airfoil into the fins, and that they are mounted on the tube straight-and-true. There will probably be tower launchers available at the field, so you can gain an advantage by eliminating the launch lug from the model.

And don't paint the model, as this would add weight. Lightly sand the balsa nose cone and fins, and "only" seal them with model aircraft dope. To make it easier to see the model, color the model with permanent markers; red or orange typically give good visibility in the air, and on the ground. Finally, you should probably add tracking powder to the model. The best way to do this is to make a little pouch from stiff tissue paper. Wrap a small piece (about 3 inches square) around a pencil or pen. Partially slide the tube off the pen, and close off one end by folding the edges inward. Then slide the tube off and fill it with tracking powder (either powdered tempera paint, or carpenter's line chalk - the colors red or black work the best for visibility in the sky). But leave one end of the pouch open; it makes it easier for the chalk to exit the pouch, leaving a nice, easy-to-see puff in the sky. For the 1/4A event, use the tracking powder sparingly, about a 1 inch long column should be sufficient, and still keep the weight of the rocket low.

If you have a piston launcher, you might want to use it in combination with the tower launcher to get more launch kick. Plans for a piston launcher are also available for a small price from Apogee Components.

Parachute Spot Landing
This event can use any old model you have lying around. A good choice would be a clunky ol' Estes Alpha III on a A8-3 motor. Usually, the most inexperienced person on the field wins this event... Luck has a way of making the experts look like novices.

"A" Superroc Duration
There are no good kits available for this event, so you'll have to scratch build. My advice is to use a model that will be of sufficient diameter to get a good size parachute into. I'd recommend a BT-5 size (13mm dia) tube, and maybe a 14 to 20 inch diameter parachute.

Build the model to the maximum allowable length of 150 cm; as the length is weighted two times more than duration in calculating the score. A good choice might be to make the rocket with a BT-5 tube in the rear, and neck down to 10.5mm at the front. An even better choice would be to use PT-6 tube from Eclipse Components in place of the 10.5mm tube.

Keep the fins small! I'd use the same size fins as on the Apogee "Centrix" rocket kit. These long models are pretty stable, so you don't need extra fin area; it just adds weight and drag.

Using a BT-5 tube in the rear allows a greater choice of rocket motors; I'd recommend that you could use the Estes A3-2T, or the Apogee A2-3. Launching out of a tower is definitely a plus in the superroc events, as you don't have to worry about the model swaying on a rod during a breeze. So you should probably leave the launch lug off (you can always glue one on later). As on most contest models, don't paint the rocket. Use magic markers to give it some color to help you spot it on the ground.

The parachute should be made out of very thin plastic. If you don't have 1/4 mil aluminized mylar (from Eclipse components), you can substitute plastic from a dry cleaner's garment bag. Color it using permanent markers (red & black work great). But don't forget to "powder" your chute so that it opens easier - particularly if the markers make the surface 'sticky.' To make the chute even easier to open, don't fold it in half - make one long spike - and don't wrap the shroud lines around it either.

1/4A Helicopter Duration
The new molded rotaroc hub and another Centrix kit; both from Apogee Components, is your weapon of choice for this event. The hub comes with complete plans to make the helicopter model from the Centrix kit; and it will be as good as the most expert flier's (since they'll probably be using the same combination). Helicopter duration used to be a difficult event, but the molded hub makes building one of these models extremely easy - you'll be hooked on helicopters when you're done!

The recommended motor for this event is the 1/4A2-2 from Apogee Components. The only thing I would recommend is extra care when prepping the rocket for flight. The burn string on the model should be fairly tight, but should not cut into the balsa blades or the cardboard tube. If it does, the blades won't open, and the model will likely crash.

"A" Superroc Altitude
This is a similar event as the duration contest, but I'd use a different model. Here, instead of using a BT-5 tube, use the smaller Apogee 10.5mm diameter tube at the bottom. It will make the model lighter so it can fly higher. Try to make the model neck down to a smaller tube up front. So I'd suggest using a PT-6 size tube on top. Again, make sure the model is at the maximum length of 150 centimeters. This is even more important in the altitude event; as this time, the "length" is weighted THREE times more than "altitude" in computing the score.

The same strategy you use for the "A" superroc duration event goes for this event as well. The exception is the size of the recovery device; go with a small 8 inch diameter parachute to reduce weight. For the motor, I'd recommend the A2-3 from Apogee. If you use a piston launcher, you might even be able to get away with the five second delay if it is a calm day.

"A" Rocket Glide
The rocket glide event will probably be the most challenging of the entire contest to the newbie. Although here again, you can match and beat the experts - with help from the kits of Qualified Competition Rockets (QCR). But you have to plan ahead and order the kits NOW so you can get some practice flights in before the contest.

You have a few choices of kits from QCR in this event. They have a sliding wing style, a sliding pod style, or a "folding" wing design. For the newbie competitor, I'd lean toward the sliding wing type, because they tend to boost straighter. The highest boosts may come from the "folding" wing design, but they can be erratic at launch if you don't have the CG far enough forward.

If you enjoy scratch building, you can find numerous old plans for rocket glider designs. Check the club library. Remember to keep the weight low by using a smaller wing, lighter weight balsa wood, and being sparing with the glue.

As always, don't paint the model - it adds too much weight. Sand a good airfoil into the wing and tail sections, and seal it with a coat of model aircraft dope. To add color, use permanent magic markers. Use a dark color on the bottom of the wings, such as black so that you can easily see it in the air. But top of the glider should be a bright color so you can find the model in the grass. I prefer red or orange.

As far as motors, select low thrust and shorter delays; either the Estes A3-2T or the Apogee A2-3. Stay away from the Estes A10-3T, as the high thrust will rip the wings off your model.

General Notes:
Before you start building your models, read the rules as printed in the pink book. The club library has a copy. You don't want to be disqualified or be at a disadvantage for not following the rules. If you want to be the overall contest champion, concentrate your efforts on the events with the highest point weighting factors. In this contest, the top two events to focus on will be "A" Rocket Glide, and "1/4A" Helicopter Duration.

Build two copies of each model for all events - (ten models total for five events, plus one clunky model for "spot landing"). You'll need both copies in each event, as with any luck, you'll lose at least one because you're going to have a great flight!

As always mentioned in articles like these - PRACTICE flying your rockets before the contest. One reason many people don't try rocket competition is that they are afraid of embarrassment. If your rocket glider has a squirrelly launch, the damage to your pride is often worse than the crashed model. Prior practice flights will take care of this.

And when you do practice, take good notes so that you won't forget those things you learn about the characteristics of each model. I strongly suggest using the "Apogee Flight Record," "Apogee Rocket Data Sheet," and the "Apogee Countdown Checklist." They will really help you get the most information out of every flight. If you use some type of data collection method on practice flights, I will easily bet that you will do great during the contest.

A good strategy is to fly your duration-event models early in the day. If you lose a model, there is a good chance that someone will find the model and turn it in later. You'll be credited for "returning" the model for a qualified flight, and you'll get it back to fly again in another contest. So make sure you put your name or NAR number on all your models. There is some strategy involved in flying rockets in contest. If possible, launch at the same time the "experts" launch. They'll be looking for thermals and waiting for calm wind, and so should you. And don't be afraid to ask for help; everyone's goal is to make sure that a good time is had by all! So enjoy yourself; and remember to be gracious when you receive your award for a first place flight!

Addresses of Companies listed in this article:

Tim Van Milligan
Apogee Components, Inc.
630 Elkton Dr.
Colorado Springs, CO 80907-3514
Tel: 719-535-9335
Fax: 719-534-9050

Estes Industries
1295 H Street
Penrose, CO 80940

Qualified Competition Rockets
7021 Forest View Drive
Springfield, VA 22150
Tel: (703)451-2808