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Fright Flight 

"We're going to the winner's circle or the hospital," declares one entrant

Wednesday, Oct 29 2003
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Sacrifices must be made.

-- Otto Lilienthal, the granduncle of aviation

Even during his schoolboy days, Prussian-born mechanical engineer Otto Lilienthal was enthralled by the question of flight to the point of abstraction. While others played ball, he studied birds, envious of their effortless sovereignty and compelled by the idea that man might one day be freed from gravity. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci and the other great men who had turned their eyes and minds skyward before him, Lilienthal saw that lift and maneuverability were paramount to propulsion; his book Birdflight as the Basis for Aviation, published two years before his first flying attempt, became the bible of early aviators, instructing upcoming "airmen" such as the Wright Brothers on the importance of aerodynamics. But Lilienthal, already a successful inventor and engineer of steam engines, still wanted to fly. Between 1891 and 1896, he designed as many as 18 gliders and made at least 2,000 recorded flight attempts, the last of which broke his spine and killed him a month later. But in the course of five short years he had changed public attitudes in the media. Prior to Lilienthal's unstinting efforts, the practical development of a heavier-than-air flying machine was largely considered the province of myth and fools. After him, it was considered the "noble pursuit."


"It sounded stupid," says Rob Innes, a Redding resident by way of New Zealand who goes by the name Psycho Chicken. "So we thought, 'What the heck.'"

And with that the history of man's fearless striving to reach the heavens since the ill-fated flight of Icarus sinks to the bottom of San Francisco Bay like a 2-ton emu bound and gagged with duct tape.

"See, Psycho Chicken will jump on ol' Bucky here," says Dan "Bill Bob" Piazza, indicating a toy horse hooked up to an array of pulleys meant to double its rate of acceleration. "We'll be running as fast as we can and when Bucky hits the stop, Psycho Chicken will be airborne."

With a cheerful nod, Psycho Chicken opens his wings, exposing an armature loosely inspired by an early '80s Disney character named Condorman. Nearby, teammate Tom Rowe, dressed as Col. Sanders and clutching an empty bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken, smiles reassuringly, but I am not convinced. Despite the fact that Piazza, Innes, and Rowe have substantial experience in design and engineering (their Bionic Dolphin, a submersible watercraft of their own devise, recently appeared in Austin Powers in Goldmember), their plan is tantamount to throwing a guy in a chicken suit off a 24-foot-high pier and calling it flight. They grin.

"We're Persian-powered," says Team Persian Immersion's Mark McDermont, sweating on the tarmac in synthetic gold gauchos and a matching vest. "We spared no expense to have this flying carpet smuggled into the country for the purpose of winning this competition. We're going to the winner's circle or the hospital."

"Guru" Mike Dias, in a fake beard and unfortunate turban, leads the rest of Team Persian Immersion, comprised of six students from UC Davis, in a sacred Middle Eastern dance meant to conjure the magic required for a magic carpet ride that, in fact, will be tantamount to throwing a guy in a turban off a 24- foot-high pier.

"We came up with the whole idea sitting in a bar at 3 in the morning on the [day] before the entry deadline," admits McDermont. "A drunken doodle later, and here we are. We thought this contest required some measure of talent, but we've learned otherwise."

Welcome to the Red Bull Flügtag, a contest for anyone who has ever dreamed of flying or, perhaps more accurately, for anyone who has ever watched his overweight uncle belly-flop in the deep end and thought, "Hey, I could do that." This year's Flügtag boasts 33 teams, some from as far away as Utah, made up of fearless idiots from all walks of life -- comedians, firefighters, real estate agents, beer salesmen, filmmakers, Robot Wars veterans, DJs, writers, surfers, architects, advertising executives, club owners, restaurateurs, professional go-kart drivers, sky divers, lawyers, software engineers, and a bevy of college students -- willing to pull, push, or heave a human-powered "flying" machine off a pier. Teams are judged on distance, creativity, and showmanship.

By 1 p.m. the crowd gathered under the baking sun at Pier 30 has swelled to nearly 35,000, and our first team is already in the air. Sort of. Imagine a 10-foot-tall fedora adorned with a giant pink feather and stuffed with oatmeal skittering off a ledge and you will have envisioned the flight path of Da Mayor's Pimp Hat, and we're just getting warmed up. There's a giant blue dragon made of chicken wire and duct tape by the Drunk Knights of the Marina; a tricked-out lounge chair in the form of a puffy hot rod piloted by members of the West Valley Flying Club; a towering ass being stung by a swarm of angry bees (a giant fart propels the Queen Bee into the drink); a "fire engine" pedaled by 62-year-old Charlie Carter, who recently returned from the World Police and Fire Games in Barcelona; a smoking saguaro cactus constructed and manned by three young teens from Arizona; a covered wagon from Oregon; a very dangerous-looking human catapult called the Medieval Missile; a giant wheelchair wielded by a team of active but accident-prone louts (since registration, one required surgery from a snowboarding accident, one damaged his elbow mountain biking, one was pulled down a flight of stairs by his dog, and another twisted his ankle while jumping off a cable car); and a giant red bull.

"It's based on a classic Russian design," says Running of the Red Bulls team captain David Cervenka of the teeterboard located in the head of the massive bull, which, it must be said, has proportionately massive balls. Cervenka and his teammates, all wakeboarding and snowboarding enthusiasts, built their contraption with the guidance of AcroSports instructor Sergey Zenov, a veteran of the Moscow Circus, and have been training under him for several hours each week in preparation.

"Altogether, there's about four- to five-hundred man-hours into this thing," says Cervenka, directing me to his Web site (www.cervenka.net/flugtag) for videos and blueprints. "The bull will lower its head, three of us will jump off its shoulders onto one end of the teeterboard, and the pilot [standing on the other end] will be shot into the air."

While Psycho Chicken gets my vote for pre-launch pre-show, if for nothing else but Col. Sanders throwing handfuls of feathers around the runway as the Fools' parody of the Talking Heads song "Psycho Killer" blares over the loudspeaker, there is no arguing with the 59 points awarded the Running of the Red Bulls for creativity and showmanship. Not only does the bull lower its head and blow huge billows of smoke out of its nose, the synchronized dance routine of the wakeboarders sends the audience into a frenzied chant of "Toro! Toro!" Sadly, pilot Brian Bennett sails a disappointing 30 feet, which, while considerably better than Persian Immersion's 16 feet, is less than half of the terrifying human catapult's 61-foot mark, putting the all-native Bay Area Team El Toro Guapo in first place for the second year running.

A human catapult might not be my idea of a flying machine, but as Lilienthal once said: "To invent an airplane is nothing. To build an airplane is something. But to fly is everything."

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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