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Continental planes' rocket scares have rumor mill flying
By CINDY HORSWELL Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
June 11, 2009, 9:55PM

Rogue model airplane hobbyists, terrorists, conspiracy theorists — these are all characters in the growing mystery over renegade rockets that had close encounters with two Continental planes as they flew from Houston’s busiest airport.

For the second Memorial Day weekend in a row, a Continental plane had a run-in with a rocket in Chambers County from an unknown source shortly after leaving Bush Intercontinental.

But a helicopter search this week found no trace of the rocket that came within a second of striking a Continental Express jet flying 23 passengers to Greenville, S.C., on the evening of May 29. Last year’s near collision with a Continental jet transporting 148 passengers to Cleveland on May 27 also remains unsolved.

Yet investigators are determined to unravel the mystery behind these rocket launches as they track telephone tips and potential evidence.

Meanwhile, some observers are openly wondering if the rockets were the handiwork of a hobbyist, a terrorist — or something more bizarre: Was it a UFO?

Internet chatter has run the gamut. Some worry that the rockets are “rehearsals” for a terrorist plot, especially since the incidents occurred on Memorial Day weekends. Some blogs refer to the rockets as “strange objects” that are “shadowing airliners.” Hobbyists express fear that their sport will be ruined if these incidents are not stopped.
Rocket ‘civilian-made’

One potential clue is determining who might have purchased the necessary fuel and engine that would be powerful enough to propel a rocket 4,750 feet into the sky during last year’s occurrence, and then even higher — nearly 13,000 feet — in the recent incident.

“We could be looking for an individual who was just trying to have some fun, or somebody who knew planes would be flying there and wanted to scare them or maybe do some damage,” said Chief Deputy Ken DeFoor of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, who is working with the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration. Authorities do not know if the same person fired both rockets.

In the latest fly-by, pilots reported seeing a 5- to 7-foot white cylinder with triangular tailfins. Authorities say it was a “civilian-made” rocket, rather than a military missile, because it had no fins on its nose that would indicate a guidance system.

The plane’s crew saw the rocket flying horizontally toward the cockpit — rather than vertically — which would usually require a guidance system, investigators said. DeFoor theorizes the rocket was horizontal because it had soared to its apex and leveled off before falling to the ground. He noted the plane’s crew saw no vapor trail or smoke, which suggests it had burned all its fuel by then.

The Express jet was ascending at 244 mph and that prevented a collision, as the plane passed over the rocket that was about 100 feet beneath the jet’s belly.

In last year’s incident, the pilot reported seeing a similar rocket shot vertically in front of his cockpit in Harris County, over Lake Houston.
Few could build it

Rocketeer hobbyists are outraged at whomever is violating FAA rules by launching homemade rockets into commercial airline space.

“An individual is required to be certified to launch such a high-powered rocket like this, and he would have to have FAA clearance to do it,” said Trip Barber, president of the National Association of Rocketry.

Barber, a retired Navy captain working as a Pentagon consultant, said very few people in the hobby world would have the skill to build such a rocket.

The rocket would be taller than most men and powered by a 30- or 40-pound engine with solid propellent, he said.

“But the odds of it hitting anything without a guidance system are near zero,” added Barber, who studied rocket engineering at MIT. “The Army has already experimented with anti-aircraft rockets that had no guidance systems. They sent a couple of thousand up and never hit anything. Too many variables with everything moving.”

He believes the culprit is trying to scare people or maybe is a domestic terrorist with an agenda against an entity such as a rocket club or airliner.

Manufacturers keep records of who buys engines and fuel for high-powered rockets, Barber said, but someone could have gotten supplies to build the rocket without going through those companies.
Launch hard to miss

However, he said making a guidance system would be difficult, requiring a multi-purpose engineering team.

Assisted by two helicopter pilots with the Houston Police Department, DeFoor and other investigators crisscrossed the area this week — from west Chambers County to the San Jacinto River in east Harris County — looking for any sign of the latest rocket. These rockets, which can cost $10,000, usually are equipped with recovery systems or parachutes so they can be reclaimed.

“We had one woman that was looking out her garage in Highlands in east Harris County about the time of the last launch,” DeFoor said. “She said she saw an object wobbling in the sky. It fell to the ground about three miles farther east.”

If the rocket had a parachute, it would have been swinging like that, he said.

But the heavily wooded land was full of tributaries and ponds that made finding such a device difficult.

Barber said the launch would have been hard to miss. “You would have heard a thunderous roar within a one-mile radius of where it took off,” he said. “It would also have had a 10-foot-long flame.”

Investigators ask anyone with knowledge of such a rocket to call 936-336-4500.


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Meanwhile, some observers are openly wondering if the rockets were the handiwork of a hobbyist, a terrorist — or something more bizarre: Was it a UFO

Uh, yes.


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Clearly the tools of them tearrists!
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