Archive for Sunday, June 20, 2004

Contraptions don’t complete flight plans

June 20, 2004

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These days we take flying for granted. We walk aboard commercial airplanes, and although we don't understand how they work, we're confident that, thanks to the extremely sophisticated technology embodied in these complex machines, some teeny part, possibly in the toilet, will malfunction, and we will be delayed.

But sometimes planes actually fly. And when they do, they become soaring monuments to the brave pioneers who made modern aviation possible -- people like Wilbur and Orville Wright Brothers, Amelia "Air" Hart, and Earl P. Flinchwater, who developed the computer program that guarantees that no two passengers on any given flight ever pay the same fare.

And the aviation pioneering goes on. On a recent Sunday afternoon on Biscayne Bay in Miami, I watched as 28 teams of courageous young people -- and here I am using the word "courageous" in the sense of "completely out of their minds" -- competed in an event called "Flugtag." Flugtag (pronounced "floog tog") is sponsored by Red Bull brand extreme energy beverage, which tastes the way Limp Bizkit sounds. I tried one, and it gave me a refreshing lift. I hope to be able to sleep again by Halloween.

In Flugtag (which is German for either "Flying Day" or "Make Sure Everybody Signs a Liability Waiver") competitors build experimental, human-powered aircraft, then push them off a 30-foot-high platform and see how far they can fly. Competitors also get points for style, so they wear costumes and perform little skits just before their flights.

Before the competition, I examined the aircraft, which were duct-tape-intensive contraptions representing a wide range of aerodynamic concepts. One was a giant replica of Homer Simpson, lying on his back, his arms outstretched to form the wings. Another was shaped like an enormous pigeon. It was completely covered with feathers, as was its flight team, a group of Orlando firefighters dressed as baby pigeons.

I asked the pigeon's designer, Corby Rusk, if he thought the pigeon would actually fly.

"Of course!" he said. "It has feathers! The feathers will give it lift! Feathers fly, right?"

Another member of the pigeon team proudly volunteered: "For our skit, we have pressurized vomit."

"That's our edge, right there," said Rusk.

Some of the entries looked vaguely like actual airplanes; others did not even have wings. One, entered by a team from England, was shaped like a giant bowler hat. My personal favorite, called "Joy of Birth," was an enormous cow lying on her back. The cow team members were also dressed as cows. Their skit involved opening the cow's legs in a clinically gynecological manner and having a team member slide down a ramp and shoot out the birth canal into the bay. "Tasteful" does not begin to describe it.

The competition was excellent. Virtually every flight went the same: The team would push its craft onto the 30-foot-high flight platform and be announced by an unnaturally enthusiastic MC who sounded as though his blood content was about 80 percent Red Bull. Then the team would do a brief, incomprehensible skit, which usually consisted of spasmodic dancing. Then, at the big moment, the team's designated pilot would climb into the craft, and the other team members would push the craft toward the end of the platform, gaining speed, until the dramatic moment when the craft would go off the end, and -- in a triumph of human ingenuity -- fall straight down into the bay.

Yes. Virtually every craft displayed the aerodynamic characteristics of a crowbar. Some of them -- notably the ones that resembled real airplanes -- appeared to fall even faster than could be explained by gravity alone. Several fell apart before they even reached the platform edge, and just tumbled off in pieces. This went on for more than three hours, and yet it somehow remained riveting entertainment. You can have your Masters golf tournament and your Super Bowl; give me overcaffeinated young people crashing in underengineered contraptions any day.

The crowd also loved it. At one point, the emcee was interviewing a team about to compete, and somebody noted that one of the team members had a prosthetic leg. The MC turned to the crowd and shouted -- I swear I am not making this up -- "Give it up, Miami, for the prosthetic leg!" And Miami, not known as a generous town, did.

Anyway, the next time you're on a plane, waiting for a toilet part, take a moment to reflect on the efforts of these bold modern-day aviation pioneers to advance the frontiers of human flight. Then look at the wings. If you see feathers, get off.




Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.

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