Continental pilot startled by encounter with 'rocket' . . .


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.


(snipperoooo by Allen)

I take it that Robert Morhead doesn’t know that Class E airspace is controlled???

I mean really, how long does it take a jet to enter controlled airspace (class E) at ANY airport whether it be 700 or 1200 AGL at 99.9 percent of airports in the US of A?

In the specific flight, it was 13 minutes after departure which means that plane (and alleged rocket) was pretty high up.


Well, Robert Morehead either got it wrong or was misquoted. Flying in controlled airspace is only an issue for unmanned rockets which aren’t exempt under FAR Part 101, specifically is it’s

 (a) Using not more than four ounces of propellant;
  (b) Using a slow-burning propellant;
  (c) Made of paper, wood, or breakable plastic, containing no
  substantial metal parts and weighing not more than 16 ounces,
  including the propellant; and
  (d) Operated in a manner that does not create a hazard to
  persons, property, or other aircraft.

If it doesn’t fit the above exemption as a model rocket, it may not be operated:

 (a) In a manner that creates a collision hazard with other
 (b) In controlled airspace;
 (c) Within five miles of the boundary of any airport;
 (d) At any altitude where clouds or obscuring phenomena of more
 than five-tenths coverage prevails;
 (e) At any altitude where the horizontal visibility is less than
 five miles;
 (f) Into any cloud;
 (g) Within 1,500 feet of any person or property that is not
 associated with the operations; or
 (h) Between sunset and sunrise.

There are further exemptions and limitations for “large model rockets”, but most folks who fly high power rockets do so under an FAA waiver. OK Tripoli, for instance, has a waiver at the Sayre Municipal airport (3O4) for a 5 mile radius up to FL230. NOTAMs have to be called in 24-48 hours before launching and ZFW has to be notified when the range opens and closes each day.

There are some pretty high waivers for HPRs in the US. Amarillo (POTROCS) has a waiver that’s higher than the one we have at Sayre with windows that go even higher. OK Tripoli also has a waiver to something like 4 or 5000 AGL (I don’t manage it anymore, so I don’t recall exactly what it is) near Minco that we use for flying big rockets that don’t go so high. More info and links at


Very interesting. Thanks for digging up the nitty gritty details and FAR reference.

My “rocket experience” is limited to those little bitty firecracker size jobs, so needless to say, isn’t much experience! … 01-22.html would be the exact FAR reference for those interested in the legalese version of what tmelton posted.


Actually, that doesn’t hack it. You have to look at all of Part 101 to get the bits and pieces that may or may not apply to a given rocket or launch. The large model rocket rule is actually so narrow that it covers almost nothing that the HPR clubs launch. It’s almost always easier just to get a waiver than worry about the LMR limitations. The incident in question could have involved anything from a model rocket to something like the scale V2 that OK TRA built, launched, and donated to the Oklahoma Space Museum.

If you want an exact reference, you could find it at … 15&idno=14
looking at Parts 101.1-101.7 and 101.21-101.25.