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Red Bull Flugtag: where levity meets gravity

TAMPA — How many different ways can you plunge off the end of a pier?

The Red Baron — with Snoopy already dunked — disintegrated. So did a giant Cuban sandwich, its top slice peeling away. A huge purple boot lost its red fur lining in midair. The space shuttle and a fire truck splashed upside down.

"We built it a little too nose-heavy," said Max Hirsh of Los Locos, group of aeronautical engineering students at DeLand's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who fashioned the space shuttle.

The afternoon of comic splashdowns came to the Tampa Convention Center, and more specifically, the Hillsborough River, courtesy of Red Bull, the energy drink company that brought its Flugtag competition to Tampa Saturday.

More than 100,000 people crowded onto the riverfront and into a thousand pleasure boats that ringed the landing area.

Among 36 teams, the afternoon's winner was Tampa Baywatch, which actually achieved flight. Runnerup was the Little Engine That Could, a doomed fire engine built by a group of Bay County firefighters who staged a rescue skit before their swim.

Like many teams, Baywatch applied a strategy of "glider separation." You build a gaudy contraption for show, and mount a hang-glider on top for flight. You run the whole shebang off the 30-foot-high pier, hoping the glider keeps going as everything else falls.

But Baywatch alone devised a way to give the glider extra speed. With nearly 30 feet of cord, they tethered it to their yellow rescue boat and pushed only the boat off the ramp. As the boat plummeted toward the river, it sped the glider toward takeoff.

Inside the boat was Chris "Dead Weight" Elmore, 32.

"My only job was to stay in the boat the entire way down," Elmore said. He did, landing with a spine-jarring thump.

Teammate Keith Humphrey, 38, sailed overhead in the hang-glider for 100 feet, a distance unmatched by any rivals.

By the Beard of Zeus also planned glider separation. The entry, by University of Florida engineering students, honored Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who achieved flight only to fall when the sun's heat caused his wings to collapse.

Saturday afternoon, John Bornberg, 20, was Icarus, and fared even worse. His zealous teammates finished their skit and began to push the aircraft. They forgot that Bornberg needed a few seconds to remove bungee cords fastening the glider to the rest of the gear.

"They were just excited," he said. "I was yelling 'STOP!' the whole way down the ramp. It was too late."

As soon as it left the ramp, Zeus' wings tipped toward the left, then straight down.

But there was a consolation. Big Rubber Duckie, an entry by rival Florida State University students, splashed into the river upside down. A Florida student soon stood before a television camera and disparaged the FSU group for honoring "a bathtub toy."

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or

Red Bull Flugtag: where levity meets gravity 07/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 3:21pm]
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