Prepare for a water landing

Local teams to launch homemade aircraft in Red Bull Flugtag

Spooners' Revenge teammates Luke Stolp, Carl Romstad, Lucas Gangsei and Rob Hagen create a flying machine with pilot Chad Arnold (not pictured). Submitted photo

“We have 24 hours to enjoy this, so we’re going to take advantage of it, up until the point where it either flies or sinks,” said Lucas Gangsei, an Armatage resident and member of Spooners’ Revenge, a team that will push a Spoonbridge-and-Cherry-inspired flying machine off a 30-foot high platform into the Mississippi River. 

About 40 local and national teams will compete in the Red Bull Flugtag at Harriet Island on Sept. 7. One of Red Bull’s extreme sporting events, Flugtag (or “flying day” in German) is an event where teams build an aircraft, perform a brief skit and attempt a flight. 

2010 Flugtag competition in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

At the 2010 competition in St. Paul, The Spooners, the forerunner to Spooners’ Revenge, took second place before a crowd of 90,000 people, losing to a then-world record 207-foot flight. (The current record is 258 feet, set in 2013.)

Teammate Rob Hagen said it was both thrilling and terrifying to stand in front of the crowd, see himself on the big screen, run as fast as he could, push the cart as hard as he could and then jump into the cold water, taking care to avoid debris below. 

“That day we all agreed, if it ever came back, we were signing up,” Hagen said. “We had to wait nine years, but it’s happening.”

Back then, the team didn’t expect to fly a long distance — judges also consider  the craft’s creativity and the team’s showmanship.

“We thought it was just going to go straight down, but it kind of glided down like a leaf in the wind,” Gangsei said.

“This time around, we’re going to win,” said Hagen, who designs fitness equipment and is enjoying the aeronautical design challenge. Red Bull has staged more than 150 competitions since 1992, so there are plenty of flight videos to watch, and several teams have documented their builds. 

Hagen is looking for ways to maximize the wing within the contest parameters, but he said a more important restriction is the size of his garage. “I can barely close the door at night,” he said.

At another garage in the East Harriet neighborhood, dads in the team S’more Problems are building a flying machine with the s’more as inspiration. (The pilot will be the marshmallow.) On a recent weeknight, the team reviewed the design while Peter Allen’s son chanted, “My daddy’s gonna be famous.”

S’more Problems teammates Nigel Mendez, Tom Parent, Ben Rasmussen, Nic Johnson and Peter Allen. Team member Andrew Carter not pictured.

“It’s more difficult than we imagined, but it’s been fun,” Allen said. 

“It’s a reason to get together,” said Ben Rasmussen.

“To do something with our lives,” joked Nigel Mendez. 

“Let our kids think we’re cool for one flying moment,” said Allen. 

“It might not be a flying moment,” Mendez said. 

“We have minimal hope of it flying, we just want to look good doing it,” Allen said. 

Team S’more Problems. Submitted photo

Other competitors include the teams Steel Diamond, Buzzy the Mosquito and Ode to Grumpy Cat. A fighter pilot from the Minneapolis team L’etoile Du Nord is building a giant loon with the help of an art director, two rocket scientists, a U.S. Bank stadium light designer and a winner of the Red Bull Candola (a homemade gondola race). The Tater Tot Titans’ aircraft will include an oven mitt and pan of hot dish. 

Another competitor is the Jack Link’s Minneapolis-based experiential marketing team, which typically represents the Wisconsin beef jerky brand’s mantra to “feed your wild side” through antics like bringing golf ball cannon launchers to charity golf tournaments. Team Sasquatch has clear ideas for a skit focused on the brand’s mascot. But the challenge to find the right gauge of PVC pipe is not a typical day at the office.

“None of us are aviation engineers, so it’s not as seamless as we thought it would be,” said Hunter Qualls, event marketing manager. “We felt like we had a really solid plan until we started putting it together and realized it was so incredibly heavy.”

Participants interviewed for this story didn’t express serious worry of injury, although most preferred not to be the pilot. 

“We’re all pretty stoked about it,” Qualls said. 

Team members said Red Bull hosted multiple conference calls to discuss safety. The competition requires life jackets and helmets, and a pilot can’t be strapped in or enclosed in any way. Participants must acknowledge the risk of injury.

2010 Flugtag event in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Nine years ago, there weren’t as many rules, Gangsei said. Now the craft height is reduced and must weigh no more than 400 pounds. It must be self-propelled with no engines or flammable liquids or batteries or catapults. The contest also requires nontoxic materials, and staff with jet skis and scuba gear work to quickly remove material from the water. 

Hagen said he’s not too worried. He remembers a jet skier pulling him out of the water immediately as he surfaced.

“Doing something that scares you — it’s important to do that once in a while,” Hagen said. “Push your limits as far as your creative ability, your ability to build and your ability to stand in front of 100,000 people.”