Fly High

Water Wings

This month, you don’t need a pilot’s license to fly over the Willamette—just a costume, a contraption, and some courage.

By Anna Hirsh May 19, 2009 Published in the August 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Red Bull

FOR THE SCIENCE GEEKS among us, eighth grade was all about the egg-drop competition. You remember: the one where you and your lab buddies used foam, cardboard, duct tape, and miniature parachutes to build a contraption that would keep your grade AA egg from cracking when it plummeted from the roof of the gym? Well, it’s back. Except when Red Bull’s grown-up rendition, Flugtag (that’s German for “flying day”), alights in town this month, forget the egg—teams will be dropping a person instead. On August 2, more than 30 teams will gather at Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park and launch their homemade crafts (and pilots) from a 25-foot-tall flight deck into the Willamette River. The goal? Fly their human-powered vessels the farthest before hitting the water (the international record is 195 feet). Of course, that’s just the technical component. Showmanship and ingenuity count too—kind of like the artistic score in figure skating. We caught up with a few of this year’s contestants to find out just what it takes to build the ultimate flying machine—or at least how they plan to employ their costumes as flotation devices.


Design theme: All of the crew are past or present members of the Rose City Rollers, so the Funky Four will be flying a giant roller skate.
Pilot: Laura Sol, aka Sol Train, 34, custom metal fabricator and owner of design company Sol Creations
Construction cost: $1,000 to $1,500
Training injuries: None yet, but that could change when they practice hang gliding before the event.
Advantage: The pilot is a white-water rafter who can plow Class 5 rapids with ease, so once the aerial performance ends, she’ll know how to handle the Willamette.


Design theme: The caffeine-saturated employees of the Port of Portland will be manning a “Red Bull Airlines” airplane.
Pilot: Steve Koester, 38, parking systems manager at Portland International Airport and a licensed pilot
Construction cost: About $225
Training injuries: “Nothing except one painful duct-tape incident we are still sensitive about,” says team member Melissa Porter.
Advantage: A real-life pilot at the helm. Plus, their craft is being designed by a team of actual engineers and pilots. (Not that there’s any pressure.)


Design theme: In honor of the computer game World of Warcraft (WoW), the craft is modeled after a goblin zeppelin, a carrier blimp used for transportation.
Pilot: Kris Roberts, 24, production manager for Scream at the Beach haunted house
Construction cost: At press time, $350—mostly on beer
Training injuries: “We were holding a planning meeting at Aalto Lounge when two drunk kids crashed through the window next to us, and we barely escaped giant shards of broken glass. Our pilot chased the kids down and held them until the police arrived,” says team member Mark Adams.
Advantage: The Numbskulls are counting on the showmanship score: They’re performing an interpretive dance tribute to WoW’s greatest musical hits before takeoff.


Design theme: A dragon boat: The entire crew races dragon boats year-round.
Pilot: Nana Arai, 39, an international logistics coordinator at a local lumber trading company
Construction cost: $700 to $1,000
Training injuries: Mosquito bites. And aching tongues from trying to pronounce their team name (German for “flying dragon boat”)
Advantage: “We spend so much time paddling on the river [10 hours a week each], we believe all that toxic water has finally given us special powers,” says pilot Arai.

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