Rocket man soars

By Alice Hudson

'I hate the rockets,' says Karen Little, when asked about the unusual obsession of her husband, Phil Vukovich.

"No seriously," she continues. "I'm amazed I'm still with him. It's been very, very upsetting."

She's not the first Kiwi woman to mourn the loss of her husband to the garden shed.

Shaking her head, she recalls him rifling through other people's rubbish bins for all-important pieces of cardboard tubing.

Despite her frustration, Vukovich is proof the Kiwi No 8 wire spirit remains alive and well.

Vukovich has been building high-powered rockets at his Takapuna home for about five years. He learned this week that he'd bettered the Kiwi record for rocket height.

It's a far cry from his first creation as a schoolboy. It wasn't high-powered and it didn't go anywhere but the entire school watched the science student's project burn to nothing on the field.

Fourteen years later, Vukovich shared the memory with his future wife. She laughed and that was it.

"I felt oddly challenged," he said, and disappeared into his shed.

That's how Vukovich, a plasterer, came to be on a Waikato farm, the official launch site of the New Zealand Rocketry Association, earlier this month.

His goal was to better the NZ "rocketry" height record of 14,700 feet. Vukovich and his small team of helpers waited four months for the right weather - blue skies and no wind, he says.

They had permission from the relevant authorities, such as the Civil Aviation Authority: "You can't just fire a rocket off willy nilly."

Taped from four angles, Vukovich's DVD shows the 2.4m rocket launching successfully. There was a loud whooshing and the rocket disappeared in an instant.

Was Vukovich impressed? "Oh, yeah, the motor was untested. I was very nervous about it, it was reliant upon my calculations."

With an in-flight computer and a GPS system, the rocket was supposed to "reveal its position" via text message.

But there was the old power failure problem - the thing ran out of batteries.

So Vukovich was delighted to hear this week from a Waikato farmer, who found the rocket in one of his paddocks.

Initial results reveal the rocket smashed the height record, flying almost 28,000ft - more than five miles - into the sky.

"It was unbelievable," Vukovich told the Herald on Sunday on Friday. "(It was) in great condition, except for the paint, which had stripped off because the thing went so fast and heated up."

Vukovich plans a break from rockets so he can finish other projects, like painting his home, but ominously for Karen, he says his obsession is far from over.

"Someone might try to top my record and then it will be all on."

WORTHY INVENTIONS

Rutherford's splitting of the atom, the bungy jump and No 8 wire are among the classics.

Then there's less well-known Kiwi inventions such as frozen meat, the tranquiliser gun, electric fence and electronic petrol pump.

Some writers are claiming that as technology and globalisation makes us less isolated, Kiwi ingenuity is disappearing.

But as Auckland Phil Vukovich says: "Kiwi blokes have always liked to tinker in their sheds - and still do."

He's not the only one getting creative and plenty of Kiwis are making waves - and in some cases commercial success - from oddball inventions. They include:

The Jet Pack: Christchurch's Glenn Martin has made a fan jet-powered by a piston engine It flies for up to 30 minutes.

The Bud Brush: Martin Thompson's invention is the answer to backbreaking "bud rubbing", a tedious vineyard job involving bending or squatting by the vine while rubbing buds with a thick knobbled glove.

Quad Device: Students at Waikato University made a device to reduce the number of quadbike deaths. A tilt sensor activates a button to alert emergency services as a bike tips.

Orbis Ring Flash: Auckland photographer James Madelin is making an affordable version of a high-end tool, which connects to camera flashguns.


- Herald on Sunday

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