Behold the Flugtag and the cult of crazy-crashing

With their St. Joe's hawk are (from left)
With their St. Joe's hawk are (from left) (Mark McShane, Daniel Ezzo, Nicholas Shafer, and Kyle Smith.)
Posted: September 15, 2012

Why would you want to launch yourself off a 30-foot-high platform in a flimsy plastic-and-foam contraption just to crash into the Delaware River?

Speaking from Cape May, where he and his friends have been building a "flying machine" to resemble an oversize nose with glasses, Adam Kutepow laughs sheepishly.

"I don't know," said the 29-year-old New Jersey state trooper from Glassboro, who will compete Saturday at the Red Bull Flugtag on the Camden waterfront. "Maybe notoriety. Attention-seeking behavior is what my mother would probably call it."

The eccentric contest - one part NASA, one part Evel Knievel, and five parts Japanese game show - is expected to draw a total of 80,000 revelers to both sides of the Delaware when Kutepow's team and about 30 others attempt, sort of, to get their homemade gliders airborne.

Now more than two decades old, the free flugtags sponsored by the energy-drink company have drawn huge crowds in cities as varied as Dubai and Rome. In 2003, a quarter-million people turned out for one in London.

Andrew Markey, North American tour director for Red Bull, cites the opportunity to witness "the art of flight" when explaining the flugtag's appeal. The more cynical credit humans' instinctive desire to revel in others' failures, especially when alcohol is available.

"With a lot of this kind of thing, people are kind of hoping to see a disaster. They want the drama and they're kind of disappointed if there's no crashing and burning," said Montana Miller, a professor at Bowling Green State University who studies popular culture.

Considering that many of the gliders are as aerodynamic as a boulder - and if YouTube videos of past flugtags are any guide - there should be no shortage of crashes this weekend. (Crafts at all flugtags are launched over water and injuries are rare, according to Red Bull.)

When Sean Loges and his friends sat down to design their entry, they didn't look to engineering texts for inspiration. Their vision came from 300, the bloody action movie loosely based on a battle between the Spartans and Persians in 480 B.C.

The result is Apollo's Cavalry, a wooden amalgamation of chariot and winged horse that Loges admits has about as much chance of actually flying as, well . . ..

"We're just planning on falling with style," said Loges, 26, of Wharton, N.J.

Twins Nicholas and Andrew Shafer, 19, and three fellow St. Joseph's University sophomores were motivated by school pride.

Their craft, the Hawkward, resembles St. Joe's hawk mascot and was assembled in the Shafer family garage in North Wales. It's fashioned from stainless steel and plastic tablecloth material, Nicholas Shafer said.

The biology majors thought the contest "would be a fun thing to do. By far it's one of the biggest things we've ever been a part of," he said, adding that his parents were "looking forward to the flight so they can get their garage back."

Under the rules of flugtag - which means "flying day" in German - remaining aloft counts for only a third of a team's score. Most points are for presentation (past crafts have resembled a Zamboni, an ornery pig, and a pizza) and the 30-second song and dance that teams perform preceding "launch."

"Make your movements large and in charge . . . the more memorable the better," the contest's 18-page rule book reads.

Other rules: Aircraft may not exceed 450 pounds and team members are not to drink alcohol until after their flight.

All to win a skydiving trip or a ski weekend.

Not everyone is content to crash. In May, a team of overachievers in Germany set the flugtag record when they flew a wooden glider 228 feet along the Rhine River.

Mike Berilla, a Lockheed Martin electrical engineer who lives in Manayunk, has put together a crew of fellow engineers to try to beat that distance.

When they push off on Saturday, the plan is for their glider to do a nose dive but then separate from its heavily weighted base, generating enough lift to achieve flight.

"It's tough. You can't use anything mechanical, so no pulleys and gears and all the other things that we figured out over the past 110 years," he said.

Since well before the Wright brothers, Americans have gathered to watch the foolhardy attempt flight.

Joseph Hancock, a Drexel University professor who studies American culture and trends, recalls growing up in Kansas in the 1970s and attending competitions where men rode bikes equipped with wings off ramps.

"There's this whole cultural phenomenon in America where people try to fly different things. Red Bull's just repackaged it," he said. "Any time you have alcohol and people doing stupid things, you're going to get a big crowd."

For many of the exhibitionists and thrill-seekers willing to throw themselves into the Delaware, the flugtag is just another weekend spent doing something extraordinary.

The camaraderie among his teammates was forged through trips to Oktoberfest in Munich and surfing, combined with a shared "desire for awesomeness," Berilla said in an e-mail.

Loges and company have traveled to New York to don superhero costumes and dance in the street with flash mobs of like-minded people.

Then one day this year, he said, they saw the flugtag on YouTube.

"Basically, we have no shame, and we're really into trying whatever's crazy," Loges said "This looks like something really suitable for us."


Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

Inquirer staff writer Bonnie L. Cook contributed to this article.

The Red Bull Flugtag will be held Saturday on the Camden waterfront, between the Ben Franklin Bridge and Wiggins Park. Viewing screens will be set up at Penn's Landing. Gates in Camden open at 11 a.m. The contest is from 1 to 3:30 p.m., with an award ceremony to follow. Free admission. Information: www.philly.com/phillyflug.

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