How to Fly Model Rockets

Updated on April 30, 2018
Flying model rockets is a fun activity for the entire family.
Flying model rockets is a fun activity for the entire family. | Source

What are Model Rockets?

Model rockets are scaled-down versions of the rockets used by space agencies and aerospace companies. These rockets vary in size from less than a foot in height to large-scale models taller than an adult human.

Model rockets may be purchased in kits at any local hobby supply store or in a department store. The kits are labeled with different difficulty levels - the ready-to-fly kits have assembled, painted rockets that do not require any gluing or difficult construction. Level 3 (or advanced) kits will require the ability to follow detailed assembly instructions, plastic cement, and paint.

Nearly all kits come with the following:

  • Rocket body
  • Nose cone
  • Parachute
  • Shock cord
  • Engine mount
  • Fins

Recovery wadding, rocket engines with igniters, and the launch pad are sold separately.

Model Rocket Parts

Every model rocket contains an engine, recovery wadding, a parachute with shock cord, a rocket body, and a nose cone.
Every model rocket contains an engine, recovery wadding, a parachute with shock cord, a rocket body, and a nose cone. | Source

Model Rocket Stages

Launch a model rocket in a field without trees, as the rocket may descend into a hard-to-reach location!
Launch a model rocket in a field without trees, as the rocket may descend into a hard-to-reach location! | Source

Launching a Rocket for the First Time

Launching rockets is extremely fun. Before heading out to the launch field, the following items are required:

  • A completed model rocket, with engine mount installed and recovery wadding placed in the space between the engine mount and parachute.
  • Rocket engines of the appropriate size with igniters and igniter plugs.The correct engine size is listed on the model rocket packaging and in the instruction booklet.
  • A launchpad.
  • A launch controller.

Rockets should be launched in an area free from trees on a calm day. Launching rockets in an area filled with trees will inevitably lead to the loss of the rocket, as it is likely to drift into the tree-tops during the recovery phase. Wind may carry your rocket far afield, making recovery difficult.

  1. Place the rocket engine into the rocket. Place the igniter into the bottom of the rocket engine and secure the igniter with an igniter plug.
  2. To launch the rocket, remove the safety cap from the top of the launchpad. Slide the rocket onto the rod and make sure the igniter wires are not in contact with the metal base of the launchpad.
  3. Attach the clamps of the launch controller to the igniter wires, ensuring the wires are not in contact with the metal base (this will cause a short-circuit). Move to a safe distance and insert the key into the controller. The controller will have a light that turns on when it is ready to launch. Begin the launch count-down sequence ("Five, four, three, two, one!") and press the launch button at the end of the count-down.
  4. The rocket will ignite and will launch into the sky. The point of maximum height for the rocket (when it levels off) is called apogee. This is when the ejection charge should occur: the nose cone will be ejected and the parachute will carry the rocket body and nose cone safely to the earth.

Model Rocket Kits

Several companies manufacture model rocket kits. Estes kits are often found in local hobby supply stores - the kits are labeled according to skill level. Ready-to-fly kits are the best for a beginner, as the rockets are already assembled and painted. The pieces must simply be fitted together before flight. A ready-to-fly (RTF) kit will need recovery wadding and an engine. Many RTF kits come with a launch pad and controller in one box, so the novice hobbyist only needs to purchase recovery wadding and the appropriate rocket engine before flight.

The ready-to-fly kits, almost-ready-to-fly, and easy-to-assemble kits are the best model rockets for children. All children require close adult supervision when building and flying model rockets.

Do not attempt a level 2 kit or higher as a first attempt. These kits require rocket-building skills and assume a certain level of knowledge. The higher the skill level, the more knowledge is required: a level 5 kit may take several weeks to complete and requires specialized tools.

Model Rocket Launch

Rocket Engines

Rocket engines may be purchased online or at a hobby shop. The type of rocket engine required will be listed on the packaging and instructions of the model rocket.The engines come with igniters and igniter plugs.

Estes rocket engines are labeled with a letter and a number. The letter indicates how much power (in Newton-Seconds) a rocket has. A rocket with a B engine will have twice as much power as a rocket with an An engine. A rocket with a C engine will have twice as much power as a rocket with a B engine.

The first number (following the letter) in an rocket engine's code indicates how much thrust the engine has. The higher the number, the faster the rocket will go. Heavy rockets will require more thrust than light rockets.

The final number in the rocket engine code indicates the delay between the initial ignition and the ignition of the ejection charge. The ideal delay allows the rocket to reach apogee before the parachute is ejected.

The rocket engines are flammable and should be handled by adults. Soak used rocket engines in water prior to disposal - the components are organic and degradable, and will be rendered harmless after soaking.

Rocket Engine Diagram

A model rocket engine with igniter.
A model rocket engine with igniter. | Source

Recovery Wadding

Recovery wadding is a flameproof material placed between the rocket engine and the rocket's parachute. The wadding is sold separately and must be used every time a rocket is launched. The necessary amount of wadding is listed on each rocket's instruction booklet. This material prevents the parachute and shock cord from incinerating when the rocket engine is ignited.

Rocket with Attached Video Camera

Accessories for Model Rockets

There are several rocket accessories that will provide educational information about a rocket's flight.

  • An altimeter may be attached to the rocket to measure the rocket's maximum height. This tool may be used in conjunction with a stopwatch to allow students to calculate the rocket's speed.
  • A GoPro Hero video camera may be mounted to the rocket, to provide a rocket's-eye view of the launch and flight sequence.

Types of Model Rocket Kits

Kit Type
Materials Needed
Construction Time Required
Description
Ready to Fly
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad
1/2 hour.
Rockets are complete and must simply be fitted together before flight.
Almost Ready to Fly
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement
1 hour.
Requires some gluing. Decals must be applied.
Easy to Assemble
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint
1 hour.
Requires some gluing. Decals must be applied.
Skill Level 1
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint, sandpaper
A few hours.
Will require painting, sanding, and gluing. Step-by-step instructions are provided.
Skill Level 2
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint, sandpaper
A full day.
Requires basic rocket-building skills. Painting, sanding, and gluing required. Instructions provided with kit.
Skill Level 3
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint, sandpaper
A few days.
Requires an intermediate level of rocket-building skill. Instructions provided with kit.
Skill Level 4
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint, sandpaper
A week or more.
Advanced rocket-building skills required. Intricate construction - painting, sanding, gluing required.
Skill Level 5
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint, sandpaper
A week or more.
Advanced rocket-building skills required. Intricate construction - painting, sanding, gluing required.
Pro Series
Rocket engines with igniters, recovery wadding, launch pad, plastic cement, paint, sandpaper
A week or more.
Advanced rocket-building skills required. Intricate construction - painting, sanding, gluing required. Recommended for ages 18 and up.

Questions & Answers

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      • leahlefler profile image
        Author

        Leah Lefler 3 years ago from Western New York

        We are very grateful for summer, Kristen! I am sure we will fly our model rockets again soon.

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        How cool is that, Leah. Summer is a few weeks away!

      • leahlefler profile image
        Author

        Leah Lefler 3 years ago from Western New York

        We really love flying the rockets! My boys are now seven and nine and we do this every summer. Since they are young, we still tend to buy the ready-to-fly or the Level 1 rockets. It is a lot of fun!

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Leah, great hub on how to fly different model rockets. I didn't know they were so many and different kids. Congrats on editor's choice. Voted up for interesting!

      • leahlefler profile image
        Author

        Leah Lefler 4 years ago from Western New York

        We absolutely love flying our model rockets, Bernie! The hardest part of the entire process is finding a tree-free field to fly them (we are surrounded by dense forest) - thank goodness the elementary school has a baseball field!

      • BernietheMovieGuy profile image

        Bernie Ment 4 years ago from Syracuse, NY

        It's been years since I've launched a model rocket. Thanks for refreshing me on how fun it was. Now where's that Hobby Lobby coupon? Voted up!

      • leahlefler profile image
        Author

        Leah Lefler 4 years ago from Western New York

        Hi randomcreative! My boys love the activity - we fly the kits often. We managed to find cheap engines on amazon.com. We usually buy tengines online, and purchase the rockets at our local hobby shop. It is fun to fly the rockets - though we have lost the helicopter nose-cone from one of our rockets (landed in a tree)!

      • randomcreative profile image

        Rose Clearfield 4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

        What a great overview! Flying model rockets is such a great activity for kids and adults alike.

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