It was about 1986 and Guy Fawkes was coming up, my favourite day of the year as a kid. I motivated my friends at Kentron to make it a memorable event as I had the ideal place in the sticks at Crowthorne. We passed the hat around the department and collected enough to buy a number of big boxes of fireworks. My partners in crime in those days were Martin Clark (RIP), aero engineer, Grant Wilson, mech engineer, better known for pulling a moonie at the drop of a, well, pants. Other notable miscreants were Dave Thompson (RIP), and Richard Wainwright. The first two and myself formed the Terrible Trio as we shared a lift club and were similarly irreverent and always looking for fun or kak. We decided that between us we had 12 years of engineering study and so were well qualified to design a proper skyrocket – stand aside Elon.
Martin had dug up the ideal rocket propellant, namely flowers of Sulphur mixed at a stoichiometric ratio with Aluminium powder. No problem. Got all the supplies from the chemist (this was still the days that chemists actually did things rather than count out the number of tablets according to the script). The right ratios were accurately weighed at Kentron and sneaked out through security again. The next problem was the nozzle. We were determined to do it professionally so Martin Clark was designated to design a convergent/divergent rocket nozzle. Being very concerned about range safety, ha ha, we decided that it had to be light hence Aluminium was chosen. This we turned on the lathe at work to Martin’s specifications. Since we really didn’t want to kill anyone, it was further decided that the solid booster containment vessel should be made from fiberglass. Martin was busy making a KR2 homebuilt aircraft and so was appointed to be the manufacturer.
On about the Tuesday before the designated launch window (T -96:00:00 or thereabouts and counting), the first prototype was tested on my plot after work. The rocket was clamped horizontally in a 6-inch bench vice and placed in a clear area. To ignite the propellant, a toaster was stripped and the element wire was unwound. The wire was stuffed into the nozzle and attached to a car battery via twin flex. We crouched behind my Beetle when we completed the circuit. It was a dud although the nozzle did fly across the grass quite nicely. The internal pressure forced open the interface between the nozzle and the composite containment vessel and popped the nozzle out. It was back to the drawing board. Martin promised to make a better one. Thursday afternoon (T -48:00:00 and counting) arrived with the same result. Martin really promised to get it right for the Saturday night launch, pinky promise.
On Saturday morning, I decided that we needed a backup. There was no way I was going to be able to make a sophisticated rocket in time so I took the tried and tested boer maak ‘n plan route. I had some 1” steel pipe which I moered closed at the one end and brazed tight. I cut off about 8” and cut Vee’s in the end, bent and brazed the petals together to make a converging nozzle of arbitrary dimensions, tamped it full of mix and set it aside – in case.
We have to digress for a while. I had an old mechanic’s overall, a polystyrene head for wigs (I had used it as a stand for my headphones while I was growing up. I used to think it was cool), and a single hand from a mannequin with joints that moved that I had rescued from a dump. I constructed a serious Guy. Marese came around to help Pat but got distracted to help me with the Guy in between having a joint. She was nicknamed Magenta by Martin from the Rocky Horror Picture Show because of her predilection for vivid makeup. Her other sobriquet was Leather Lungs when she once single-handed resurrected a braai fire from the dead although a determined dope smoker. We carefully stuffed my overalls with dry grass and a bit of green grass for a smoke effect and put various fireworks in the pockets and inside. He was placed in pride of place ready for the great event.
Grant arrived late from a day of hot air ballooning and asked if he could light the Guy. “No problem. Go for it.” Wrong, very wrong. He and his mates hauled out the balloon gas burner, tilted it horizontal and in a macho display, just blasted the bejesus out of the Guy from about 3m which proceeded to fall apart from the abuse. OK, so that didn’t work. We lit all the other fireworks one by one until the main event came.
Martin had dropped me after all. Time for plan B. I had a piece of exhaust tubing about 40mm diameter and 700mm long. We had no more toaster element, what with all our failed prototypes, so I unravelled the thread from a bunch of lady crackers (or were they called Tom Thumbs – I forget) which is woven to hold them all together. This thread is actually the same as the fuse for the crackers. This was stuffed inside the nozzle and about 2” was left trailing outside. I placed this in the exhaust tubing and leant that against some bricks.
By this stage we were totally unprofessional, so stuff the countdown. I got up close and personal to the rocket, lit the fuse and fell flat on my back from the explosion. The rocket streaked off into the night sky but the trajectory could only be estimated from the first few seconds while the propellant still burnt. For the rest, who knows? It just disappeared into the dark sky like a mortar round. I reckon it easily went a kilometer or more. I actually had an image of some nearby farmer inspecting his cow the next day and wondering how come his cow had sprouted a third horn overnight. As it so happened, quite soon after the event, a cop van from the Midrand Police Station trawled past the smallholding which had me a touch worried about that whole cow image. We all held our breath as they proceeded on their way.
HW Longsworth wrote a poem called The Arrow and the Song. I’ve retitled it, The Arrow Went Wrong and changed the second two verses.
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
“Fuck!” I expleted into the air
It flew further than we would dare;
The fuel mix was far too strong,
There was too much to go wrong.
The next morning, found the cow
With a steel tube through its brow.
We were all innocent that Sunday,
Let’s just hope it stays that way.
We hadn’t made an elegant rocket but a lethal mortar bomb. Elon we weren’t, after all we did work in the arms industry.