From Houston Chronicle.
A Continental Airlines pilot reported being startled by what he described as a rocket that shot past his cockpit window Monday when the plane was about eight miles north of George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force are investigating the incident, which occurred about 10:30 a.m.
“We don’t know for sure what the object was. But we think it might be somebody doing model rocketing,” said Roland Herwig, an FAA spokesman. “The pilot saw the rocket and some people saw the rocket’s trail (of smoke).”
Continental Airlines spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said Monday night that she could not discuss what was seen by the crew of Flight 1544. She would only say that the Boeing 737, with 148 passengers. left Bush at 10:17 a.m. and arrived in Cleveland, Ohio at 2:13 p.m.
She said the pilot made no diversionary maneuvers, and she added the plane was not damaged, and nobody was injured.
The FAA does not yet know how close the object came to the plane or what altitude it reached. “We will determine that by establishing a radar history,” Herwig said.
FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap stressed that it is “routine” for the FBI to look into suspicious activity involving an aircraft.
“We don’t know if it was a rocket or what. We will interview everyone and determine the validity of what was seen,” she said.
If it was model rocket, investigators want to know the type and who launched it.
“Building rockets is a legitimate hobby, but hobbyists have to let the FAA know what they’re doing,” Herwig said.
Robert Morehead, an engineer who is president of the Amateur Spaceflight Association in Houston, said the FAA would only need to be notified if a rocket would be entering controlled airspace.
He said the only danger to a plane might be if the rocket is ingested by a plane’s engine.
“But their engines are designed to ingest birds and not come apart,” said Morehead, who lives in Clear Lake. “The real question is if the rocket would tear up the engine instead of just shutting it off.”
Model rockets can be made of cardboard and glue or have aluminum air frames, he said. Rockets also have no difficulty reaching the 30,000 to 40,000 feet, the altitude at which an airliner may cruise.
“There is a guy who claims his rocket has reached the threshold of space or 75 miles,” Morehead said. “But there are lots of models that could fly as high as an airliner. You can do it with a 10- to 15-foot tall rocket and some little ones.”
But Flight 1544 had recently taken off and might not have been flying that high, he said.
The models can be fueled with everything from black powder to ammonium percholorate and aluminum, he said.
“It’s not rocket science when you use a kit,” he said. His organization builds rockets from scratch to teach students the math and science behind it.
“We just built one using liquid fuel that had substantially more thrust than the models,” he said.
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman in Washington D.C., said the Monday incident is not the first time a rocket has crossed paths with an airliner. But so far, no plane has been hit by a launched model rocket.
“There are model rocket clubs operating around the country. This was a holiday weekend that would be good for a launch,” she said.