HOUSTON – Federal officials said they are investigating a report from a Continental Airlines pilot who told air-traffic controllers he was startled to see what looked like a model rocket with a flaming tail shoot past his cockpit window shortly after takeoff.
"We don't know for sure what the object was. But we think it might be somebody doing model rocketing," FAA spokesman Roland Herwig told the Houston Chronicle on Monday. "The pilot saw the rocket and some people saw the rocket's trail."
The FAA, which is investigating the incident with the FBI, said it is unclear how close the rocket came to the plane Monday morning, Herwig said.
The pilot spotted the object flying at 5,000 feet shortly after taking off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Flight 1544 continued its trip from Houston to Cleveland after reporting the object to air traffic controllers. Scott Wilson, a spokesman for the FBI's Cleveland office, told The Plain Dealer that the plane wasn't in danger and landed safely.
Continental Airlines spokeswoman Kelly Cripe declined to discuss what crew members had seen aboard the Boeing 737, which carried 148 passengers. The plane did not change course and was not damaged, she said.
FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap told the Houston newspaper that the bureau routinely looks into any suspicious activity involving a plane.
Robert Morehead, an engineer and president of the Amateur Spaceflight Association in Houston, said model rockets routinely reach as high as 40,000 feet. He said model rocket users are supposed to notify the FAA if a rocket is entering controlled airspace.
Moorehead said the only danger a model rocket could pose to a plane would be if it was sucked into the plane's engine.
"But their engines are designed to ingest birds and not come apart," he said. "The real questions is if the rocket would tear up the engine instead of just shutting it off."
Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman in Washington D.C., told the Chronicle that model rockets have crossed paths with planes before but have never struck them. She also said the Memorial Day holiday weekend was a good time for a launch.
"Building rockets is a legitimate hobby, but hobbyists have to let the FAA know what they're doing," Herwig said.