Have you ever seen the movie October Sky? I must have seen it a dozen times growing up. Every time I watched I was inspired to do something great. I always found it amazing that high school kids could do something as grand as build a fully functioning rocket. I never dreamed that this was actually happening at high schools across Texas. Boy was I in for a surprise! Last year in 2014 a man named Brett Williams invited Alpha Search and Recovery to Lake Jackson to help support SystemsGo in their rocket recovery efforts. I had no idea just what this meant. I envisioned high school kids creating those little rockets that you see on the internet in videos. The reality was so much more amazing.
Upon arrival I was quickly dispelled of this notion. These kids were building real rockets. Not the little fun sized ones you can buy in a kit online. They were building transonic rockets (i.e. rockets that approach the speed of sound). These high school kids were building rockets that I had only ever seen in movies or on TV. Kids, kids were doing this! After realizing that we were in for a fun weekend Alpha SAR jumped right in and enjoyed a successful weekend of recovering rockets in 2014. Our team had a great experience implementing search techniques and skills in a real world situation.
Let’s jump forward to May 2015. Mr. Williams was so impressed with our search techniques that he invited us out again this year to help. This time however he wanted us to see their big show in Fredericksburg, Texas. A few of us were free and more than willing to help out. Alpha SAR spent two amazing weekends watching high school kids launch rockets….and helping to recover them while practicing our SAR skills.
You may wonder what rocket recovery has to do with search and rescue, but it was a great exercise to practice SAR skills for new members, as well as our experienced team. Team members were each given a map with a location to go for spotting and GPS coordinates. Members had to practice navigating in the field to that location and then communicate on the radio their actual coordinates back to the Incident Command (IC). The members then waited until a rocket launched, then using their compass they shot a bearing where they saw the rocket land and had to report into IC the rocket’s location. The team members in the Incident Command Post (ICP) then took each position/azimuth and triangulated the location of the rocket. The closest team was then radioed with the approximate coordinates of the rocket to be recovered. The team then had to navigate using GPS and maps around various water and land obstacles and search the area surrounding the triangulated location for the rocket. Many skills were used and the newest team members learned a lot in the field, especially about using clear radio communication and basic navigation with both maps and compasses and GPS units.
In Lake Jackson, Alpha SAR implemented a new mapping system and software to simplify and improve the recovery efforts. One of the SystemsGo members coined the phrase, “Bringing rocket recovery into the 21st Century.” By utilizing a free online mapping application called SARTopo, we found that we could triangulate the rockets landing locations much more accurately than just using maps. Occasionally, the computer was not necessary. As you can imagine shooting off rockets isn’t always a walk in the park. There are always those rockets that just don’t do what you expect. We had a few close calls. Sometimes the rockets would go ballistic, when their parachutes did not deploy, and would come down hard and fast. A few of our team members had that heart racing experience of watching, and hearing, a rocket or two come down very close to their location. I cannot tell you how terrifying and at the same time thrilling this can be. Just imagine hearing the whistling of a small plane falling out of the sky directly next to you, but never actually seeing the vehicle. Only the thud of impact allows you to breathe regularly again. Or maybe you do see the rocket coming back ballistic and from your vantage point it may just land directly on top of you. Thankfully, this is rarely the case, but it adds to the excitement of the experience. It also makes the vehicle easy to find if not necessarily easy to get to. Our Alpha SAR members had the opportunity experience different search terrains and conditions in the effort to retrieve the rockets.
The next weekend a few of us drove out to Fredericksburg. We got to see firsthand just how massive this educational program is. There were schools from all over Texas. These kids work harder than you can imagine to design, test, redesign, retest and finally launch their final product. This program is not your regular afterschool club. SystemsGo is an actual high school curriculum that these kids learn and grow with for their last 2 years of high school. They aren’t just throwing together some parts and launching it into the sky. These kids get to experience the theory and principles behind the design of a rocket and they get to apply these principles to the real world by building the system they design. Their final launch is a part of their grade in the program. They have a lot riding on this final. So you can imagine just how important it is to recover their projects. By implementing our mapping software and our search techniques we are helping these kids to complete their program of study.
Posted by Alpha Search And Recovery on Saturday, May 16, 2015
As members of Alpha SAR we strive to learn and improve our capabilities and techniques. What better way to learn SAR skills and techniques than by hunting for rockets. We practiced our mapping skills in field situations. We worked on our clue awareness and communication skills. Many of us had the opportunity to practice our public relations skills and to practice working in conjunction with other agencies. Overall, we spent two incredible weekends working on our craft in a low stress, non-critical situation. Now we can take the skills we have mastered into real search scenarios with confidence and ease.
Written by Meriah Voight.