For the casual onlooker these monthly meetings, held by the Southern England Model Rocket Flying Club, are about as visually spectacular as lighting a sparkler on bonfire night. Yet, for the initiated, the real thrill is watching an aerodynamic model of your own creation scale the heights and then land gently - thanks to a special pre-packed parachute. 'You can put hundreds of hours of work into them,' says club member Verney Montague. 'It's so satisfying to see something perform so well when you've created it.'
In America, model-rocketry has been popular since 1956. Over here it used to be classified as 'manufacturing explosives' and remained illegal until 1986. This may explain why it is still a relatively undercover and insular hobby in England. Trevor Sproston, 39, an enthusiast for 10 years, is a member of the Acme Space Modelling Association, one of only a handful of clubs in existence. 'It's part of the British psyche,' he theorises. 'People see the archetypal English model-maker as some lonely chap sitting in a little room in glasses and an old cardigan carefully detailing a wonderful model.'
It's a Sunday afternoon and enthusiasts are relaxing in fold-up chairs eating sandwiches. Their car boots are open and overflowing with rocket paraphernalia: diagrams, fuel and wires. In the middle of the field, a small area is cordoned off. In it, a sinister-looking black V2 and several smaller home-kit models are poised on their launch pads - spindly-looking tripods - ready for ejection. A figure runs down the field, shouts '5-4-3-2-1' and presses the launch button. This is attached to a long lead which then ignites the rocket's motor. A brief flash in the sky and the missile lands in a nearby field. 'There is a hell of a lot of waiting around for 30 seconds of activity,' Trevor concedes. 'It can sometimes look like self-imposed torture.'
Chris Bishop, an electronics engineer, fishes out the plan that is currently absorbing him from the back of his car. 'You can't beat a V2,' he says. 'It's the first one that ever went into space.' He spends long hours in the Imperial War Museum and even has rare footage of the legendary German model.
Basic models are cheap and easy to make. A starter pack costs around pounds 25 and contains the model, an engine, launch- pad and starter. More sophisticated examples range from one to 6 ft in length, reaching speeds of 300 miles per hour and heights of 3,000 feet. Although relatively powerful, they are completely safe and approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the majority of rocket enthusiasts are men. It's tempting but probably too simplistic to surmise why rockets should appeal to the male hobbyist. For Trevor, the enjoyment lies in the moment of tension before lift-off. 'You're never sure how it's going to behave until you see it launched,' he says. 'Then there's this delicious tingle of adrenaline followed by a quiet glow of pride.'
The Southern England Model Rocket Flying Club are meeting tomorrow. For details contact John Harvey on 0703 552517Reuse content