By Aaron Gordon
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There's a certain narrative one could weave that outlines the last century-plus as technological marvel after technological marvel, with Exhibit A being the conquering of flight. The first airplane begot better airplanes; which begot airplanes with guns and bombs attached to them; which begot airplanes that went faster and higher and farther that could take amazing pictures for the purpose of spying on other airplanes; which begot airplanes simply used for getting people from A to B; which then begot airplanes with internet and TV and shower spas.
The Red Bull Flugtag competition is the counterargument to this narrative.
Teams of five people spend months building gliding machines they push off a 26-foot platform. The distance the pilot travels (the other four push the craft) is one of three scoring categories, the other two being costume/craft creativity and pre-launch dance/performance routine. Imagine a sponsored high school talent show, and you are close to the Red Bull Flugtag.
What was unclear to me was why anyone would take months out of their lives to do this. According to Red Bull, they received thousands of applications, which shocked me; not the number, but that there's an application process. The prizes aren't particularly lucrative: first place gets a skydiving trip with the Red Bull Air Force (my god, they have an Air Force, hide the children), the second place team gets a VIP experience at a "Red Bull-titled sporting event", and third place gets to go to a "Red Bull-titled music, dance or art event". Meanwhile, the People's Choice Award (the team who gets the most votes via social media/text) gets a VIP experience at a New York Red Bulls soccer game. All of these sound like experiences money can most definitely buy, particularly the amount of money one would spend on building a poor gliding machine and transporting it to the competition.
There were five Flugtag events across the country on Saturday. I attended the Washington, D.C. event on a day that slowly deteriorated from pleasant to stormy. From the moment I checked in, I realized this event was about two things: gravity's merciless inevitability, and drinking Red Bull, always Red Bull, never forget about the Red Bull. Neither of these came as a surprise, of course, but the relentlessness of both were of equal proportion.
You know when you go to a rave and they give out E at the door? No, of course you don't, because you're an upstanding citizen who has never been to a drug-addled mayhem factory. Neither have I, of course. This event was a bit like that, except with Red Bull, which is essentially gasoline-laced E anyways. All the VIP and check-in areas featured coolers full of free Red Bull. Since the participants/competitors had access to these areas, this meant speaking to the crews was often an attempt to decrypt energy-drink-encrypted messages which feature extra verbs, suffixes, adjectives and distracting limbic movements. One crew member downed an entire can of Red Bull during our two-minute conversation. (Some of you out there may be unimpressed by this chugging display. Seek counseling.)
So if you interpret the Flugtag to be a frat party that replaces cheap beer with Red Bull and crowdsurfing with Flugtagging, you're not far off. The whole running-and-jumping-off-a-ledge-hoping-to-momentarily-defeat-gravity thing is, in so many ways, ancillary.
The Yeager Bombers (named after pilot Chuck Yeager--who broke the sound barrier-not the beverage with a similar-sounding name which may-or-may-not be combined with the event's sponsor to form a disgusting concoction) estimated they spent $1,200-$1,400 on their sleek design, but the marketing department of their employer, Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia, helped defray most of the costs.
I spoke to Andy Nall, the pilot of the Yeager Bomber, who said he purposely grew a mustache to match his Top Gun fighter pilot costume (it literally had a "Top Gun" badge on it) because "all pilots need the mustache." He was perched on top of his missile-shaped craft, Dr. Strangelove-style, Red Bull in one hand, arm raised in the other, a human promo of bravado and gumption. When the time came, the craft nose-dived into the water, shattering the front.
The most locally-themed craft was Rockin' Lincoln, which was an Elvis-themed Lincoln Memorial. Crewmember Brittany Brown-Hart explained to me the origins of the mix while downing her "like ninth" Red Bull of the day, and therefore unable to cease dancing: "We got s---faced at a happy hour, and everybody knows the Lincoln Memorial is the coolest monument, but what would make Lincoln cooler? Elvis!" So they built a craft that looks almost identical to the Lincoln memorial, except with a few Elvis-like touches and a detachable head. Spoiler: the Lincoln Memorial is not aerodynamic.
Then there was the All American Girl from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This glider was modeled after a plane hanging from the Pittsburgh airport, with one major addition: two breasts on top of the wings. Built by members of the Cheerleaders Gentlemen's Club in Pittsburgh, they raised over $10,000 for breast cancer awareness to fund their craft and trip to DC. Planes do not have breasts on them for a reason, I presume, and this one demonstrated as such as it plummeted to the Potomac.
Overall, there were 29 competitors, all of which met very similar fates: hours upon hours of varying levels of craftsmanship and monetary investment-from the economically-designed and "Anchorman"-inspired Channel 4 News Flugtag to the US Army's 244th Engineer Corps out of Baltimore, which was unexpectedly brick-like in flight-meeting the same watery ends. All the crafts ended up getting towed by boats to the shore, where a backhoe crushed it into garbage.
After the tenth-or-so craft fell to Earth seemingly faster than normal, as if gravity itself wanted to just get the hell out and go home, I couldn't help but wonder what this event was. Aside from a massive promo for Red Bull, the Weather Channel, the National Harbor, and each sponsor for the individual crafts-this is the main reason for its existence, of course-there has to be something else here. After all, ten thousand (ten thousand!) people paid to be here. This had to be more than the largest 'Super'-Is-An-Underused-Prefix Club meeting in history, or practical demonstrations that piano-shaped objects do not make for good flying machines.
So here's my stab at this larger meaning of the Flugtag. We, as a society, may be better at building things than ever before, but "we" as individuals aren't better at this, just a very select few of us who are more productive than ever before. The Flugtag is just another reminder of how incompetent most of us are at damn near everything.
One of the gliders was modeled, as described by the pilot, "after a paper airplane, then we went from there." They were all wearing NASA t-shirts, but then started breakdancing. Their craft, unsurprisingly, plummeted straight to the water with little horizontal distance; I suspect they forgot to account for the lack of a human on top of paper airplanes. Watching 29 gliders abide by the unrelenting demands of gravity, I remembered their answers when I asked the teams how many had experience building flying machines, or how many equations were solved for X during the design process (I thought I heard one of the groups shout "NERD!" at me as I walked away; can't be sure, though).
One of the groups, sponsored by and named after a local piano bar-and whose glider was shaped like a piano-played Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" before creating a piano-shaped splash about fifteen feet in front of the platform. This seems to encompass the modern American spirit: don't stop believing you can accomplish something no matter how little reason you have to believe it, until the second a piano flips over your head and you're underneath it, drowning (metaphorically speaking). Don't stop to think, don't stop to plan, don't stop believing.
This isn't to say I could have done any better. But I also would never have tried, and maybe this is where I'm missing something important. The Vermont Lumberjacks used this opportunity to promote their own beverage distribution business and spent over 300 hours combined building a craft they would ceremoniously destroy in about half a second. I suspect the axe as a rudder didn't provide the yields they suspected as the craft nose-dived, which led to pilot Nicole Shangraw face-flopping into the Potomac River. (The large video board was only so happy to replay the impact several times like a World's Greatest Injuries cassette tape.) The Lumberjacks didn't even get a word in edgewise about their company during their time on stage. If anyone should have been disappointed with their efforts, it was the Lumberjacks.
Still, as Nicole came out of the water and dried off her face (which was mercifully wound-free), I asked her if it was worth it. "Definitely," she smiled. "So much fun."