It means “Flying Day” in German, and Flugtag is just that: A gathering of competitive teams who present and launch their own flying machine designs, all to the cheers of the gathered crowd.
The first-ever Flugtag happened in Austria in 1991, and contained the core ingredients that define Flugtags to this day: A boisterous atmosphere, plenty of whimsical plane designs (few of which do much actual flying) and a large body of water for the planes to end up in after their very brief “flights.”
The Red Bull energy drink company has been primarily responsible for keeping Flugtags alive with its annual competition bringing together entries from all over the world. Huge crowds typically attend these events; the largest ever saw over 250,000 at a London Red Bull Flugtag.
Red Bull’s southeast region Flugtag, held June 23 in Nashville, Tenn. — which broke the record for largest U.S. Flugtag crowd at over 80,000 — featured 30 teams, including one entry, the “Bee Wing,” from our own Savannah College of Art & Design’s industrial design program.
Under the direction of industrial design professor and project leader Jesus Rojas, the team comprised captain Ben Landrum, Joseph Pruitt, Blake Fusch, Matt Shoaff and “pilot” Jesse Bizzoco, the only female on the team.
While their brainchild, the “Bee Wing,” didn’t win at the Red Bull Flugtag, the team remains proud of their entry. We spoke to Rojan, Landrum and Bizzoco soon after their return to Savannah.
How did you first get involved in the Red Bull Flugtag?
Jesus Rojas: We were invited by the southeastern region of Red Bull. They sort of pushed us to enter, so we sent a drawing. Between thousands of drawings they received we were among those chosen.
In the beginning we were completely serious about flying. But after listening to the requirements of the competition we realized that’s not actually the case. Red Bull was instead looking for fun, spending a nice day and doing a nice show.
When we started our design, the Red Bull reps were telling people, go big, go big, go big. So we decided to go smaller, both because it’s easier to fly that way and because Jesse’s a pretty light person. Gradually we realized these guys really wanted something big and noisy. The team who won was something like that, a giant banjo or something. Whereas we were one of the smallest.
So were you able to stick with your design principles or did you begin to give into the whole circus thing?
Jesus Roja: No, our intent was to fly. We definitely tried to fly. We didn’t try to fall (laughs).
We actually designed a complicated system to gain more speed and acceleration, but they didn’t allow us to do it. Our original propulsion system had pulleys. We did some testing in parking lot and actually got it going 35 or 40 mph.
Ben Landrum: The parameters are set up so you can’t build something that’s going to fly. They say your design has to have less than a 30-foot wingspan. Well, a hang glider has to have a 32-foot wingspan to fly. So they understand what they’re doing with that.
What we did is to realize most of the teams had large craft that would have lots of lift as well as lots of drag. That limits their ability to have speed.
Honestly, I think Red Bull was pretty upset that we figured out how to fly. Ultimately I think the reason our pulley system got canned is that they really want big, crazy things with Chinese dragons.
Jesus Rojas: A month ago we had a conference call with the Red Bull people, and also an insurance company. We were talking more seriously about safety, talking about a neck brace for Jesse, a full helmet.
But the point of the thing is just to do a show. And they got about 80,000 at that thing, shoulder to shoulder, people everywhere. It was very impressive.
So when they told you no pulleys, then what?
Jesus Rojas: Plan A was the pulleys, so we had to go with our Plan B. The team is five people – a pilot and four others. So we had four guys push Jesse down the pier to the water. It’s actually launched – there’s no motor no pulleys, nothing mechanically assisted. The plane was launched on a cart, so when the plane goes off the edge the cart and airplane would separate from one another. That part performed very well.
Tell us about the actual construction of the Bee Wing.
Jesus Rojas: Everything was homemade. We fabricated everything ourselves. The surface was Dacron, which is a synthetic product that’s very light. We applied it on top of the ribs, and when you put heat to it it shrinks and makes tight. The Dacron will adhere to every rib very tightly.
So it’s sort of like a WWI biplane, with a light structure covered with fabric.
Ben Landrum: It’s a really a different aerodynamic profile, considerably different than that, but I guess structurally similar. We based our thinking on the space shuttle. It actually makes power-off landings where it just drops like a rock. They use aerodynamics to control it on the way in.
That’s essentially what we tried to do. We wanted to build a very small lightweight craft then use a pulley system to shoot it into space. We used a lot of composites to define the leading edge and create wing strength. Unlike a WWI biplane architecture, we didn’t have guy wires or anything like that.
Jesus Rojas: It’s kind of like a sea kayak — you know the type where you sit on top instead of getting in? It’s like mixing a sea kayak with an F-16.
Ben Landrum: It’s a modified delta.
Jesus Rojas: Then we inserted the carbon fiber tubing. It weighed almost nothing.
How much does the Bee Wing weigh?
Jesus Rojas: About 25 pounds.
Twenty-five pounds? As in two-five? At first I thought you said 125.
Jesus Rojas: It weighs 125 pounds with Jesse in it (laughs).
Ben Landrum: One of the criteria to have a viable airframe is you you have to be able to pick it up by the wingtips, because essentially in an airplane the force is projected out to the wingtips.
Jesse Bizzoco: It’s pretty amazing. We showed how a 25-pound aircraft could hold my weight.
Jesse, tell us what it was like “flying” the Bee Wing. Were you strapped in and everything?
Jesse Bizzoco: No, I wasn’t strapped in. I had little handles to hold onto after it hit the water. Then these sea dudes sort of come in with little floaties and bring you back to shore.
Were you frightened at all?
Jesse Bizzoco: Well, it’s a lot higher than it feels. You look at it from the ground and think, well this is all right. Then you get up there, and it’s about 23 feet off the water. You’re up there and you’re waiting behind guys going in front of you, and you watch them get all pumped up. And then it’s your turn.
We were having a lot of fun. Part of the competition is to do a short skit before you go. Part of the skit is for the team to pick me up and put me in the craft. So we did that and then it was like, OK, I’m in. So they started pumping the cart and then I pretty much nosedived (laughs).
Were you OK?
Jesse Bizzoco: I got a little whiplash at the bottom, but I was fine.
What were your qualifications to be the pilot?
Jesse Bizzoco: I think I was qualified because I’m one of the smallest people in the industrial design department (laughs). And also I’m from Tennessee, and I spent a lot of time growing up jumping off of cliffs into lakes and stuff like that.
Clear this up for me: What’s the difference between industrial design and engineering?
Jesus Rojas: Engineers design the mechanical aspects of how something works, whereas we work on the style, the look, the anthropometrics. We strive to become masters in the process of problem-solving.
Ben Landrum: Ultimately what we do is determine how you respond to any kind of mechanical object in the design world. We take objects that exist and we figure out the most efficient way for people to interact with that object. We create the ability to use what engineers design.
Jesus Rojas: We also improve things that have been designed in past. Like we would take something, even something simple like a screwdriver, and improve its performance and make it easier for people to use it.
SCAD’s department of industrial design is always willing to sponsors things like this. We’re not afraid to get in the water and play with the rest of the people.
Speaking of the water, whatever became of the Bee Wing? Where is it now?
Jesus Rojas: In the dumpster. When you compete, after your plane lands in the water they bring a crane out and pick it up and throw it in a dumpster on top of all the other ones.
How do you feel about that?
Jesus Rojas: Uh, ask me some other day (laughs).
So will you participate in next year’s Flugtag if you can?
Jesus Rojas: If we get invited we’ll certainly think about it. But instead of taking it so seriously we might go for something more fun.
Ben Landrum: Like a giant pirate ship (laughs).
Jesus Rojas: Or a giant bee.