Flugtag is a leap of faith

Homemade flying machines will launch from a platform and soar over the Inner Harbor. Or not.

October 19, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

Standing outside a warehouse in Glen Burnie last week, Ron Furman was sculpting down a piece of foam.

It was a little more than one week before Red Bull Flugtag would come to Baltimore, and Furman, engineer Dan Hayes and the other members of this team were working on deadline. If all went as planned, the foam, along with some other framework, a large propeller, four wheels and one pilot, would form a giant crab-mobile. This Saturday, it will become airborne -- for more than a few seconds, they hope.

In Flugtag, groups of people build human-powered vehicles and push them off a 22-foot platform out over water. Saturday, more than 20 teams will launch near the Maryland Science Center and head across the Inner Harbor toward the Constellation. The craft that makes it the farthest wins.

Usually, the vehicles don't get too far. Some of them are built more for decoration than flying. The longest flight in the United States went 78 feet before eating aqua, and a team in Austria set the world record at 195 feet.

"It's very difficult," said Ellie Applen, communication manager for Red Bull. "I think people are very surprised when they actually do launch their craft."

But Furman's not worried about nose-diving right from the get-go.

"When you're doing something like this, you don't think about what if you bomb," Furman said. "A positive mental attitude is critical. The other thing is, with all the engineering and all the research that Dan's done and the hard work that we've put into it, I have pretty good faith that the crab is going to escape."

Flugtag, a brainchild of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz, started in 1991 overseas and made its way to the United States in 2002. About a dozen U.S. tournaments have been held. To compete, flying machines must weigh less than 450 pounds, be human-powered and measure less than 30 feet wide. The winner gets a free flying course for one person or $7,500. Second place wins skydiving lessons or $3,000, and third place is paragliding lessons or $1,500. There's also a winner for showmanship.

As long as the vehicle designs are deemed safe and admissible by Red Bull, they can resemble almost anything. A large buffalo wing and a figure from the Goonies are among Applen's more memorable ones, she said. A cell phone, giant paper airplane, Dumbo and a stack of pancakes will all go over the edge Saturday.

Furman and company's crab, dubbed the Max's Maryland Flyer (Furman owns Max's Taphouse in Fells Point), is 30 feet wide. It rests on wheels covered in foam bottles of Max's 20th Anniversary beer and should weigh about 220 pounds with pilot/bicycler Dave Black inside. Black's pedaling will turn a 9-foot propeller, generating 15 pounds to 16 pounds of thrust, Hayes said.

Hayes, a 54-year-old metalworker, will control the crab's direction by remote. He's never built anything of this scale, but said if Black can pedal his heart out for 30 seconds, they'll win. Furman demands more.

"We expect them to put it in the Smithsonian, because it will be the first Flugtag ever to be flown across the harbor from the Science Center to Fells Point," Furman said. "Ron says we're flying to Fells Point. [Black's] going to land in the square and get a beer."

The Maryland Flyer team sees wind resistance as its only opposition. A breeze blowing 2 to 5 mph is no problem, but if it gets up to 15 knots, it could turn into a nightmare, they said. Wind or no wind, Flugtag will go on, Applen said.

Each team must perform a short sketch with music before pushing its creation off the platform. Furman's skit is life or death, but he won't reveal the details ahead of time. He and the others entered Flugtag for bragging rights, and as they worked on the crab last week, they kept a slightly devious, childlike demeanor about them.

"I always feel like a little kid, but this confirms it," Furman said.

Red Bull Flugtag starts at 12:30 p.m. Saturday on a large platform outside the Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St. Free. For more information, go to redbullflugtagusa.com. The exhibition "Built By Amateurs: The Quest For Human Powered Flight" runs through Oct. 29 at the center; admission is $9.50-$18.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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