Winging It

Beware of flying squirrels, saucers and Santas. Red Bull's "Flugtag" event visits Cleveland this year to give a new crop of contenders the chance to battle gravity.

It's a bird. It's a plane. No, actually it's somebody trying to fly a giant martini glass.

It's Red Bull Flugtag (pronounced Floog-tog) and it's coming to Voinovich Park, behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, on Saturday, Aug. 14. Cleveland is one of three U.S. cities to host the event this year.

What's Flugtag, you ask? Well, Flugtag is German for "Flying Day." But this isn't like a Monday morning at Hopkins. Not even close.

Imagine this: Amateur pilots will be trying to get handmade, human-powered flying craft into the air off the end of a 30-foot ramp. Or, more likely, into Lake Erie. Each team will then be judged on three criteria: distance, creativity of their design and showmanship. The grand prize is a pilot's training course or a cash award of $7,500.

In the past, "flying machines" have included a squirrel, a flying saucer, Santa and his sleigh, a dragon, rhinos, even a flying Elvis. Red Bull received 250 applications for the Cleveland event this year. One of them was from Bob Ferguson of Akron and his "plane," the "Ghoulardi Glider."

I participated in Flugtag in Chicago last year and had a blast," Ferguson says. "The plane I flew was called 'Pigasus' the Flying Pig. And by the way, when I say I flew, I mean I made it to the end of the platform before I dropped into Lake Michigan."

Ferguson says an urge to design a flier that captured the spirit of Northeast Ohio led him to start drawing up specs for his "Ghoulardi Glider."

"If you look at my plane," he explains, "it looks exactly like Ghoulardi lying down in the airplane position holding two pink flamingos.

"Flugtag fulfills a lifelong dream for me," Ferguson adds. "I've always hoped to do something strange in my life and now I have. Let's just say I'm hoping to fly a little further this year."

After talking to Ferguson, we started to get the itch to devise a flying machine of our own. We asked NASA Glenn Research Center chief of flight operations Bill Rieke how he would attack this sort of project.

"The first thing I'd do is make sure my insurance is paid up," he jokes.

While Rieke says it's certainly possible to accomplish human-powered flight (the Flugtag record is 195 feet, by the way), he adds that it's not going to be easy to do more than leave the ramp and let gravity do its thing.

xThere's probably two ways I'd approach this," Rieke says. "First, I'd basically try to do what the Wright Brothers did,flwhich is design a pedal system where I could pedal as intensely as I could and then glide for a distance once I left the ramp.

The other way would be to build a separate wheel unit attached to my pedal system, which would allow me to generate even more speed as I left the ramp," he says. "Then, once I left the ramp, I'd release the wheel unit to reduce my weight and let the prppeller take over. The question, of course, is how to release the wheel unit. ... Are explosive devices allowed?"

But just because Rieke knows how he'd design such a flier for us doesn't mean he would ever strap himself in to take the plunge into Lake Erie.

"Listen," he says. "I've been catapulted off ships way too many times to know that I don't want to jump over water without two jet engines pushing me."

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