Flugtag – Fly, Fall & Sink

Ever seen a station wagon fly? How about a coffin? A barn? A hamburger?  On Saturday, July 24th, down on Harriet Island in St. Paul, Minnesota, 90,000 spectators watched as these and other homemade flying contraptions launched into the air as part of Red Bull’s annual Flugtag event.  Out of over 100 applicants, thirty-seven teams were chosen to compete in this year’s Flugtag and thirty-five teams completed the mission.   A majority of the teams hailed from Minnesota, but there were others from Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and other nearby states.  One of the competing teams was the North Star Roller Girls, an organization of which I am a part.  So I headed out to join the masses and see dreams take flight.  Or see them crash and sink into the mighty Mississippi.

Abandon ship!!

Abandon ship!!

At first I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Red Bull’s Flugtag.  This event has never been held in Minnesota, and my experience was limited to seeing brief commercial snippets on TV over the years.  I always thought it looked extremely goofy and wondered what these poor saps were thinking trusting their lives to flying machines that looked like they were made out of popsicle sticks, chewing gum, and flimsy fabric.  However, as I strolled through the hangar area to get a look at all the entries prior to the event, I was astounded at the creativity and showmanship.  It was obvious to me that several teams had put hours of effort and a lot of money into their designs.  The North Star Roller Girls’ entry was a giant winged roller skate, and other entries included picture-perfect replicas of the St. Paul skyline, a World War II B-25 bomber, Snoopy’s dog house, the Jetsons’ flying saucer, and the Griswold’s station wagon from National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, to name a few.

Along with the actual flying machines, all of the teams were dressed in costumes related to their themes.  There was a team of purple-clad Princes standing next to their little red Corvette, while a team of zombies stood near their flying coffin.  Gilligan, Mary Ann, Ginger, and the Skipper waved to the crowd as they passed the SS Minnow.  The spectators mingled among the designs, taking pictures with the costumed teams and laying bets as to which entries might actually get some air and which would immediately plummet into the river.  I must say I didn’t have a lot of faith in most of the entries getting very far, but there were a few I thought had a great chance and I was hoping the winged skate would claim the North Star Roller Girls a spot in Flugtag history.

Doesn't quite have the distance.

Doesn’t quite have the distance.

As the teams began lining up near the ramp that led to the launch platform, a group of us claimed a spot with a great view of both the platform and one of the giant Jumbotrons which would provide close-up footage of each entry’s skit, flight, and post-flight interviews. Yes, that’s right – not only did each team have to construct a homemade flying machine, but the four pushers and the pilot also had to choreograph and perform a skit that corresponded to their theme atop the platform.  I had planned to stay only until after NSRG’s launch, which was at position #17.  But once it got underway, there was no pulling myself away.  The spectacle was too great.  And a spectacle it was.

The skits mostly involved dance routines to songs about flying or to songs that corresponded directly to the theme of the entry.  There were also a few sports-themed performances with a Brett Favre impersonator throwing footballs in the Mississippi River.  NSRG did a little something different and highlighted how important the role of pusher was to the Flugtag by dancing to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”  My favorite skit involved the zombie team dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” a routine they practiced for over two months prior to the event.  It was very well done and an awesome sight to see.

Also awesome to see?  One flying machine after another being pushed off the launch platform and plummeting directly into the river, followed closely by the team members.  I would say the vast majority of the entries did not make it more than 30 to 40 feet from the platform.  A few of the designs broke before even making it off the platform.  Apparently homemade contraptions shaped like coffins, hamburgers, penguins, Zambonis, Corvettes, dog houses, station wagons, narwhals, and penalty boxes just weren’t meant to fly.

The record for the longest Flugtag flight was set in Austria in 1991, the first year Red Bull held the Flugtag:  195 feet.  As more and more entries launched and crashed, I began to believe that record would continue to stand.  Then the replica of the World War II B-25 bomber sprung into action.  The glider was built by Major Trouble and the Dirty Dixies, a team of aeronautical engineers from Inver Grove Heights, MN.  It began its flight atop a metal tower that detached from the glider once it was pushed off the platform.  The team hoped this would give the aircraft extra altitude and keep it from nose-diving straight into the water, a fate that several of the other entries had already succumbed to.  The glider also had a lever system that raised the nose and was flown by a licensed pilot, which combined to help them surpass the 195 foot buoy marking the long-standing world record and land 207 feet from the platform.  Entry #10 had already set a new world record and there were still 15 entries to go!

I wish I could say that the North Star Roller Girls’ flying skate went on to top Major Trouble and the Dirty Dixies or even come close to the previous world record.  But alas, the skate plummeted to the water, launching the pilot, Aurora Whorealis, into the air before she and it hit the water with great force.  However, their spirits weren’t crushed; 90,000 people cheered them on as being one of the best crashes of the day and they were later featured on the cover of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the evening news.

North Star Roller Girls

North Star Roller Girls

If I learned anything from this spectacle, it’s that  Flugtag isn’t just about flying, competing to win first place, and breaking world records, (which Major Trouble and the Dirty Dixies would end up doing after all 35 entries took flight.)  It’s also about entertainment, showmanship, and the best crashes – just like roller derby.  Which is why the next time Red Bull’s Flugtag comes to town, you can bet there will be another entry piloted by North Star Roller Girls.  And hopefully the next skate will fly even farther.  I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to start drinking that Red Bull now, if it really does give you wings.

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