Learning to fly

  • Chicago Red Bull flugtag team Carp E. Diem on August 27, 2012. (Lenny Gilmore/ RedEye)
Chicago Red Bull flugtag team Carp E. Diem on August 27, 2012. (Lenny Gilmore/… (Lenny Gilmore )
September 05, 2012|By Ryan Smith, @RyanSmithWriter | RedEye

Team Carp E Diem's decidedly unscientific methods for building a flying machine would make the Wright Brothers roll in their graves.

The group of five Chicagoans began with a schematic drawing that, to their own admission, is a "crude, kindergarten-level sketch" of a stick figure riding a glider. Meanwhile, the five-member team regularly consumes cocktails of Red Bull and vodka while piecing together an 18-foot-long Asian carp craft that consists of a ladder hooked to plastic tubs, cardboard boxes and various other household products.

Team captain Brittyn Vollmar thinks it has the potential to travel 20 feet before smacking into Lake Michigan.

"A lot of this is trial and error," said Vollmar, 27. "We've never made a giant fish before, much less a flying one."

Luckily, breaking flight records isn't the goal of Red Bull Flugtag, (pronounced Floog-tog) a tongue-in-cheek competition the energy drink-maker has held dozens of times around the world since 1992. For the first time since 2008, the event returns to North Avenue Beach on Saturday, when spectators can watch 28 different squads dress up in themed costumes, perform a short skit set to music and test the air-worthiness of their homemade flying machines by sending them off a 30-foot-high platform into Lake Michigan.

Flight distance is part of the game--a German team broke the record earlier this year with 229 feet--but creativity and showmanship are just as important to the judges. That's good for the Chicago Duck Hunt team, which brags a water fountain designer, beer tour guide, lawyer and computer programmer but no engineers or aviation experts.

"We went online and did some searching to see what has worked in the past for Flugtag," said team captain Manuel Alfaro, 34, of Lincoln Park. "Basically, we did 30 minutes of Googling to make up for our lack of aviation degrees."

Shortly before the June deadline to submit their ideas, Alfaro and crew came up with a plan for a duck and zapper meant to emulate the old Nintendo 8-bit video game "Duck Hunt."

"It was 5 a.m., and after many beers, we just said, ‘Yeah, let's do that!' We're all gamers, so we loved the idea," Alfaro said.

It may have been an off-the-cuff idea, but Alfaro's team of five has been working about four hours a day since the last week of August designing, drilling and building it at Kirkwood Bar + Grill in Lakeview. The key to its flight success, according to Alfaro, is using foamy fun noodles you'd see at a pool party as a base for the wings.

"We're sort of getting cocky because we're beginning to think we can make this thing fly," he said.

Meanwhile, a team consisting of bartenders from Boystown pub Roscoe's has been busy constructing a 9-foot-tall red high heel meant to hold pilot Ricardo Avila, better known as drag queen Frida Lay.

"We just thought it would be funny to push a drag queen into the lake, and what would be more appropriate than a heel?" said captain Brenden Chrisman, 31, of Boystown.

The five-member team, Head Over Heels, doesn't have its skit completely down yet, but Chrisman said it will be set to the song "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and will involve four guys in high heels telling Frida Lay how to behave.

"It'll be the ultimate drag show," said Chrisman, who added that hopefully the craft "doesn't just cartwheel straight off" the platform. "On paper, it's going to be huge a success. We'll see."

Vollmer said she's spent way more time and money on it than she ever expected, but the wacky group project has been worth it.

"Even if it's just for a brief moment of glory, at the end of the day, it's fun getting together with a group of good friends working together on something fun," she said.

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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