F RANKLIN — While building a rocket for a school project, Franklin High School senior Tony Mclelland had to worry about a long list of technical details, many of them linked to one critical question.
“Will the rocket flip over and kill you, or will it fly?” asked his physics teacher, John Sorrel, only half joking.
Mclelland’s rocket is taller than he is, with a powerful engine that lifted it some 2,000 feet at a supervised launch in March, securing him the special certification needed to fly what are known as high-power rockets.
The devices are considered hobby rockets, but they are a far cry from the cardboard and balsa wood models found at the local hobby shop.
“Building the rocket took about four months,” Mclelland said. “There was at least a six-month period before that getting ready.”
That’s not to mention the $1,800 he had to raise for the project.
Sorrel has integrated rocketry into his science classes for more than two decades, but he said Mclelland is the only student he has worked with to progress from the basic water-powered hobby rockets to gain his certification for the sophisticated high-power variety.
“We are not building little sissy rockets anymore,” Sorrel said.
Mclelland said his introduction into high-power rocketry came from repairing old rockets Sorrel had on hand, learning the ins and outs of construction and materials before beginning his own.
The design was tested in a computer simulator using information on every aspect of the rocket to chart how it might fly under different weather conditions — the shape and weight of the different parts of the rocket body, the size of the motor, the placement of the fins.
“We can see precisely what it is going to do,” Mclelland said.
Mclelland learned how to piece together the small computer that deploys the parachute based on atmospheric pressure, with the goal of, first, making sure the rocket lands in one piece and, second, trying to bring it down as close to the launch site as possible.
Mclelland said the rocket consumed most of his senior year, and he had to opt out of playing baseball because of the time demands of the project.
“That is what it takes,” Sorrel said.
There are three levels of certification needed for flying high-power rockets, based on the progressive sizes of the motor.
Mclelland received the first-level certification after a successful test flight in March and said he plans to go after the second-level certification by next spring using the same rocket with a larger motor.
The rockets fly so high — some climb several miles — that there is only one field in Louisiana cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration as a launch site, an isolated area near Winnsboro.
Sorrel, an avid high-power rocketry enthusiast, said it is rare for someone Mclelland’s age to secure the certification needed to fly the rockets.
“He is one of a very few in the nation at his age level,” Sorrel said.
Mclelland, who is also a member of Louisiana National Guard, is set to graduate high school this month and plans to begin studying mechanical engineering next spring at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he hopes to work with others to form a high-power rocketry team.
He has already helped revive the once-dormant Crazy Cajun rocket club in Acadiana.
Mclelland said he eventually wants to get into robotics, of the airborne variety.
“I would much rather things to fly,” Mclelland said.