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Building a Red Bull Flugtag flying machine is flugging difficult

We joined up with Nissan in Nashville, Tennessee to build a non-motorized flying rig. Then we pushed it off a 30-foot platform and prayed it would fly.

Challenge four Nissan engineers to build a flying machine at an event full of ridiculous costumes and dances, then throw in a final, breathtaking 30-foot plunge into a river, and you have the Red Bull Flugtag.

Since the early 1990s, the Flugtag, which means "flying day" in German, has put regular folks on a quest to see how far they can fly, without the aid of any type of motor. Participants are tasked not only with engineering their rig, but coming up with a theme that includes costumes and a skit. Each flying rig is placed on a cart of some sort, with one pilot attempting to fly the damn thing and four folks pushing the cart off a 30-foot platform into a river. After the pilot crashes, and they all do, the four pushers must jump off the platform and swim to safety. Points are awarded more on style and commitment than on actual flying time.

There are rules on dimensions and weight, but other than that, anything goes. You want to build a rig that looks like a Delorean? That's cool. How about a Batman-themed craft that doesn't even have wings? Go right ahead.

I joined Nissan engineers Ben Myburgh, Rich Simmons, Cullum Stirling and Darren Hawkins on this crazy adventure as team Nissan Take on flight. I'm not much for engineering, but I do have a background in costume design. After we decided on an '80s theme, I hit the thrift stores while the guys spent countless hours building the rig. They created a 3D model, put the specs into a simulator, then welded and riveted the craft together in a hangar outside of Nashville for six weeks. Our goal? To beat the world record of 258 feet of flight, set in 2013 by a group of aeronautical engineers from Palo Alto, California called the Chicken Whisperers.

A merry band of cheap 1980s nostalgia. And a custom flight simulator.


The Nissan guys came up with a wedge-shaped wing that looked a lot like a hang glider. Our pilot, Stirling, would steer the wedge by shifting his weight forward and aft. Pushing his weight to the back would push the nose up, pushing his weight forward would make the nose dive. That was the theory, anyway.

The day arrived hot and humid in Nashville, Tennessee. As we lined up, the team was confident we would beat the record. The crowd was thumping as we took to the platform. We nailed our dance to "Take on Me" by the '80s Norwegian band A-ha, Stirling climbed aboard and we pushed the cart as hard as we could over the edge of the platform.

And it bombed. Literally, the craft just dove into the water, nose first. The four of us stood on top of the platform, stunned. Instead of the expected 258-plus feet, the wing went a mere 21 feet. The Flugtag official broke through our disbelief with a screeching, "JUMP!"

So, we jumped, 30 feet down, plunging into the Cumberland River. As we climbed out of the cool water, I could tell the guys were disappointed. So much time and effort and our hopes were dashed in mere seconds of non-flight.

I'm pretty accustomed to losing. I'm usually middle of the pack when I race off-road. Last year at the inaugural Rebelle Rally, a seven-day rally with just a compass and a map to navigate, I took a very possible win and turned it into 11th place on the last day. Don't get me wrong, I'm competitive, but winning is not the ultimate sign of success for me. I count my fun trophies, not my first place trophies.

At least we started off looking good.


The engineers at Nissan? Not so much. As we dried off they lamented the lack of time for testing. Stirling said the launch off the platform happened so fast he didn't have time to throw his weight to the back of the wing. The final rankings include scores not only for flight time but also theme, costumes and skit. In the end, the Nissan Take On Flight team came in dead last. The winners were Team Ground Control, with a Ziggy Stardust theme. Their rig flew 81 feet.

Regardless of where we fell in the rankings, the Red Bull Flugtag is a hoot and a half. The schedule for 2018 has not been published, but I highly recommend you form a team and take on the challenge. Just remember, the only thing guaranteed is that you will eventually crash into a river.