SOUTH TAMPA — Keith Humphrey usually spends his nights and weekends frequenting local watering holes, throwing parties with friends and playing recreational volleyball. These days, however, his free time has succumbed to Flugtag fever. The condition has rendered him open to some, well, new things, such as hopes of flying in a homemade glider, dancing in a boy-band-style routine and making a boat. If you don't know what Flugtag is, you will. First of all, it's pronounced Floog-Tog, and about a week from now (July 19), 36 teams, many with otherwise rational and career-minded adults, will launch their own "aircraft" from a 30-foot-tall ramp at water's edge behind the Tampa Convention Center. In other words, they will attempt to fly.
The event, sponsored by Red Bull energy drink, has been staged worldwide, including Miami and San Francisco in years past, and is known to draw crowds of 35,000 to 60,000. Teams will come from as far as White Plains, N.Y., and Waco, Texas. They have themes and perform skits before their flights. Judges look for creativity, showmanship and distance of flight. Spectators will likely watch from the sidelines or from their own boats in the Hillsborough River.
Humphrey, a sales manager at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, first caught the bug in April when he heard that the event was coming to Tampa July 19. He was already familiar with television commercials and Internet videos of people in costumes mounting bizarre flying machines and plummeting into the water.
"My first thought was, 'That's cool, I have to be involved,' " he said.
Humphrey, 38, gathered a team, including his twin brother, Kevin, and three friends they had known since high school: Kevin Riley, 36, an animation director; David West, 37, a business owner; and Chris Elmore, 32, an art director. They all live in South Tampa. Four members were Adventure Island lifeguards in college and three are members of the Gasparilla Krewe, the Rough Riders.
The group discussed the idea over drinks and took about a week to brainstorm themes and a team name. Drawing on their experience as lifeguards, they settled on Team Tampa Baywatch.
They decided that their flying machine would resemble the bright yellow boats featured in the 1990s show Baywatch. In their skit, they'll dress as characters from the show and draw inspiration from its stars, David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson.
Team Baywatch was fairly confident in putting together a craft that would look good, but realized that they didn't actually know how to make it fly.
So, they started calling on the community to get money and a way to take flight.
They received PVC pipe from a local plumber and shirts from a clothing company. A choreographer donated her time and a prayer center its mirrored room. Hawks Neighborhood Grille, one of the team's favorite places to unwind, offered $500. Spectrum Studios, home to Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures and where Riley does his animation, let the team store its craft there.
They devoted their weekends to bending pipes and painting their boat. Still, they lacked the one thing that may matter most: getting off the ground.
After calls to a couple of airports and through friends networking, team members met their secret weapon.
They call him "Mr. X."
His real name is Robert Bailey, a hang gliding innovator who developed a means of towing gliders behind ultralight planes. He divides his time between the cluttered hangar in Groveland that he calls home and Sydney, Australia, where he works for a hang gliding company. He describes himself as a hang gliding "gypsy" and flight enthusiast.
"I like anything that flies," Bailey said.
He had designed an aircraft for a past Flugtag in Australia and jumped at the opportunity to help in another. He figures that, given the right wind and a good pilot, the team could break the world record for Flugtag flight distance, which stands at 195 feet. He has spent hours training Keith Humphrey to fly. They attached the team's glider to the back of an all terrain vehicle, with Bailey driving the ATV and Humphrey "piloting" the glider, simulating flight.
On Flugtag day, Humphrey and the glider will ride atop the team's boat, which the other four members will push to the end of the ramp. If all goes according to plan, the glider will disconnect from the boat and sail into the air. The team joked that they could fly to Davis Islands, setting a world record.
The event sponsors will have responders on site in case of emergencies.
The winner gets free flight time with a local instructor, but Team Tampa Baywatch has already decided to give the prize to Bailey.
For them, the Flugtag was initially just a cool way to get together with old friends. Now, they've set their sights on making Flugtag history.
"At first it seemed like a ridiculous fun thing," Riley said. "Then we realized that it's partly serious after finding engineering solutions. We intend to win."
Joshua Neiderer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.