Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fun With Flugtag

In the past few years a comic airshow called Flugtag has been traveling around the world. It's produced by the makers of Red Bull, which is a tasty soft drink containing methamphetamines. Their slogan is "Red Bull gives you wings." If the Flugtag is any indication, it also makes you crash and break up into pieces.
Here's how a Flugtag works. Teams spend months designing and building flying machines using commonly available materials, most of which come from the city dump. The team pushes the plane (carrying one team member, known as the victim) down a long ramp about thirty feet above the surface of a lake, river, or other body of water. When the plane reaches the end of the ramp it falls straight down into the water, usually falling apart even before it hits the water. Then the whole team jumps off the ramp into the water. Canoes rush in to rescue the team and clean up the debris. Ten minutes later another team does exactly the same thing. This goes on for hours.
A Flugtag show was held a while ago in Austin, where I live. 85,000 people lined the shores of Lady Bird Lake to watch the spectacle. Getting 85,000 Texans to walk away from their air conditioners in August is an accomplishment in itself. For comparison, that's about half the number of troops the United States government has stationed in Iraq to fight a war. It would have been a spectacle even without the planes crashing into the lake.
The all-time record for a Flugtag flight is listed on the website as 190 feet. From what I saw, the longest flight in Austin was about three feet. I was disappointed. I didn't expect any of these contraptions to take wing and soar off into the sunset with a jaunty tip of its wings, but I thought some of the teams would at least make an attempt. They didn't. They just wheeled the things down to the end of the ramp and dropped them in the lake. Then they all jumped off the ramp into the water in sympathy.
Apparently none of the teams was aware that swimming is banned in Lady Bird Lake for health reasons. Without going into too much detail, the fecal matter counts are way higher than they would be in a nice spring-fed swimming pool. Personally, I wouldn't jump into that water if there was free beer floating in it. I half expected the planes to decompose before they were salvaged. But it would have been hard to tell.
Part of the fun of watching a Flugtag is seeing the quirky designs people come up with for the craft. Among the entries in Austin were Billy Ocean's Flying Fish Taco, the Chupacabra Iditarod Sled and the Germans Bombing Pearl Harbor. Another plane depicted a giant, possibly rabid, bat. Of course, this is Austin, and you see things like that all the time around here. The city's slogan is "Keep Austin Weird." Even before Flugtag, we were doing a pretty good job of it.
If Flugtag comes to your city (and if you have a body of water, it probably will), here's a tip. Get there early. You'll want a good seat to watch the planes crash into the water. And it really adds to the experience if you can hear the sounds of the planes disintegrating as they hit the lake. Even better are the screams of the victims as they realize that they're not going to be swooping gracefully over the lake after all. And you have to be close to hear all that over the oohing and aahing of the crowd.
If you really want to have some fun, disregard all of the above and get to work on your own flying deathtrap. Who knows? Maybe yours will be the one that defies the laws of physics and actually flies.

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