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Since the dawn of time, man (especially Drunk Man) has dreamed of flight. And before Wilbur and Orvil got it right in Kitty Hawk, several people tried and failed gloriously to achieve even moments of gravity-defying greatness. Nowadays, flying is something most of have done and we tend to take for granted. But there are those who choose to chase the elusive dream of flight in spite of its prevalence in today’s world. Where can you find these creative and somewhat insane individuals? At a Red Bull Flugtag, of course; an event so wildly creative and addicting fun that it is in my must-experience-before-you-die activities in life.
The word “Flugtag” is German and literally means “Flying Day.” It is the brainchild of Red Bull’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz, and since 1991 this unique flying competition has been held every year in over 35 countries. The contest in simple: design a human powered flying machine, drag it up a 30 foot ramp, and then launch yourself over a large body of water in hopes of flight, or at least a wicked crash. Your flying machine cannot weigh more than 450 pounds (including the pilot), be constructed of natural materials, and it needs to float so the clean up crew can dispose of it properly.
Teams aren’t just judged on how far they fly (or fall), but on creativity and sportsmanship. It’s these later categories that add a real dimension of fun to this sport. The flying contraptions that I witnessed at the St. Paul Flugtag included a giant mosquito, a Family Truckster (from National Lampoon’s Vacation) and a giant Acme Rocket driven by a Wile E. Coyote himself. While none of these crafts flew very far at all, they were a ton of fun to watch plummet into the cold Mississippi river.
These events a real value for your dollar as every Flugtag is absolutely FREE to attend. Now, the beer and Red Bulls that they sell aren’t, and neither was the parking. But if you can stand to walk a few blocks, and if you pack a lunch and some bottles of water, you can enjoy five hours of crazy fun that is fit for your entire family. The event itself runs about three hours, with a two hour pre-show. You will want to arrive early to a Flugtag so you can get a good spot to watch the shenanigans. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on as there aren’t any bleachers to sit on either. It’s festival seating on a grassy knoll. If you are one of those money hats who own a boat you can always park on the water and observe from a safe distance.
As a former event producer, I was really taken back at the show Red Bull puts on with one of these events. First, there were two jumbo LCD screens strategically placed so that even the latecomers could see what was going on. Tiny and I got choice seating both near the ramp and one of these screens so we could watch the show and get the instant replay action. Second, not a minute of the event is wasted as there are people interviewing participants at all stages of their jump, this made time fly by and I constantly felt entertained. You had your sexy reporter on top asking what the team’s aircraft was all about. Contrast this with the smart ass reporter on the shoreline who would interview the wet and downtrodden flyboys about what inevitably went wrong in their attempt at flight. Finally, DJ Incompetent wannabes would play cool mashups in between any lag in the action. They even had an FM station broadcast the event live in case you were too far to hear the massive speakers, or if you were on a boat drinking Perrier. The whole production was incredibly smooth and rivaled many major sporting events I had paid far more money to attend.
Now, there is some science to actually winning at a Flugtag. The ramp itself is only 30 feet high, not nearly tall enough to get the lift you would need for flight. Competitors who were serious about soaring through the air would build a tripod and place their flying vehicle atop. These teams almost always flew further, but they were also limited in their creativity. The distance record for a Flugtag flight before the St. Paul event was 195 feet. Luckily for the 90,000 people who attended that day, this record was broken and the new World record is 207 feet! After watching countless teams simply fall into the water, it was amazing and exciting to see somebody actually take flight. It was a feeling similar to seeing your favorite team score a touchdown or hitting the winning home run.
Most teams, however, ditch the whole science of the event and go for showmanship. Before flight, each team has to perform a skit which usually consists of a poorly choreographed dance routine. Watching these skits on the big screen was fun, but seeing them from afar was even funnier. One team dressed as zombies and did a quick version of Thriller before launching a plane that looked like a coffin.
Red Bull has two more stops in the US this year. They will be in Long Beach California this August and Philadelphia this September. If you’re in those areas you owe it to yourself to go. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget and one that I can’t wait to see again!