Pin It

Fright Flight 

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

Wednesday, Oct 29 2003
Comments
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

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular