Setting new heights

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Paul Haley
  • 4
Three, two, one, blast-off! Some people never get enough of what they love, like Lt. Col. Jim Wilkerson, who can never get enough altitude. The 313th Airlift Squadron pilot and Boeing pilot instructor also aims high in his hobby.
His hobby is model rocketry and he set a new altitude record of more than six and a half miles Sept. 17. Colonel Wilkerson unexpectedly set the 35,300-foot record while running a test flight on a home-built rocket.
“It was built to go high and fast, but it went much higher than we expected,” he said.
Colonel Wilkerson built the rocket with the intention of setting a record for the next-higher engine class, but launched it with a smaller engine to get test data for a computer simulation, he said. He uses a simulator to estimate the height his rockets will reach, but it has limited use without test results, he continued.
Part of the problem, he said, is that drag on the rocket increases drastically as the rocket exceeds the sound barrier. The increased drag causes inaccuracies in the simulator and decreases the altitude the rocket will reach. A new type of engine burns more slowly, but for longer, allowing it to put the same power to the rocket without causing it to fly as fast, he added.
“It still passed the sound barrier, but it was slower so there wasn’t as much drag,” he said.
The altitude records are categorized based on the amount of power different engines put out. Colonel Wilkerson set the record for “M” class engines while testing his rocket designed around an “N” class.
Colonel Wilkerson said he set out to break the record because new technology had passed what was used to set the old record.
“The record had been set, but I was pretty sure I could better that mark. The engines are always improving, and there’s a lot of technology transfer from NASA and the military,” he said.
In addition to being a good way to let off steam, Colonel Wilkerson’s club, the National Association of Rocketry, has an outreach to local schools, he said.
The association sponsors a national contest for junior and senior high-school students, with more than $60,000 of scholarships as prizes. The contest pits students against one another in an attempt to launch a raw egg to an altitude of 800 feet, with the flight lasting 45 seconds.
“Our aviation club welcomes activities like these because they provide a great vehicle for students to practice leadership skills, learn organizational techniques, meet deadlines, and it gives them a natural application for learning technical subject areas,” said Jeff Coleman, science teacher at Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup, Wash.
As a mentor for the contest, Colonel Wilkerson is working with teams from two schools in Puyallup. He encourages students in their interest in model rocketry, as well as teaching them construction techniques and safety requirements.
“Jim is a great asset to our club because he provides both a military and civilian aviation perspective to the students and has a ton of knowledge about amateur rocket building,” said Mr. Coleman. “He exemplifies professionalism and helps these kids realize what is possible if they believe in themselves.”
Whether using his rocketry hobby to relax after a busy week or to encourage young people in their interest in science, Colonel Wilkerson is always striving for new heights. Colonel Wilkerson’s rocket may have stopped climbing at 35,300 feet, but his ambition probably never will.