Picture this: You’re eight years old, and you’ve just built a homemade winged contraption out of a cardboard box, a couple of lids from plastic totes, and copious amounts of duct tape. You are absolutely certain that if you could just get enough speed and take off from a high enough platform, you’d soar like an eagle.
It’s a nearly universal experience from childhood – the confidence that nature’s laws simply do not apply to you. And Red Bull has taken this energy and turned it into an extreme sport: Flugtag.
Red Bull Flugtag feels like it was concocted after a conversation between a third grader and Travis Pastrana – in the best way.
Essentially, teams of five people dress up in costumes, do a brief dance or skit, and then launch their homemade, human-powered “aircraft” off of a massive 22-foot platform, trying to stay in the air as long as possible before ultimately landing (or more likely plummeting) into a body of water below – in this case, the Ohio River in Cincinnati.
Conceptually, it’s awesome. Practically, it’s also awesome – but in a totally different way than expected.
See, I rather optimistically expected to see these “aircrafts” take flight and glide through the air for several seconds before gracefully landing on the water. But for the vast majority of these crafts, that’s… not what happened.
Buddy is 70 years old??? pic.twitter.com/wjG5UOvj8h
— Kevin Harrish (@Kevinish) August 12, 2023
“Flugtag” is a German word that means “flying day.” So I sincerely expected to see some – well – flying. But to borrow a phrase from a poet known as Buzz Lightyear, what I saw was actually much more like “falling with style.”
But here’s the thing – that’s kind of the beauty of it.
I quickly came to realize that this event wasn’t actually about who could fly the furthest – it was about whatever they could throw off an elevated platform to keep the massive crowd entertained.
So the 70-year-old man who took a loud and immediate nosedive in his homemade glider was every bit as thrilling as the craft that glided 54 feet. Hell, probably the most entertaining run of the day came from a team that just flung a guy off the platform on a giant skateboard with no wings.
— Kevin Harrish (@Kevinish) August 12, 2023
The goal wasn’t really to fly that far – it was to draw a massive crowd and to keep them thoroughly entertained. And that mission was accomplished.
In all, more than 30,000 people showed up to watch the event, watching from the shore, crowding nearby bridges, and even parking their boats in the water to get close to the action. The crowd even stood out to judge Chad Johnson, who regularly played in front of more than 60,000 fans during his time with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You know when you go to a football game, and they say standing room only? Bridges were filled up, people as far as the eye could see,” Johnson said after the event. “Red Bull should have Flugtag in Cincinnati every year.”
The average flying machine might not have done much flying this weekend, but the event itself was entertainment in the purest sense, from the skits and the costumes to the spectacular flights and flubs.
And yet, despite failure after failure, every team still approached their flight with the blind, youthful confidence that their craft was going to soar through the sky. It didn’t matter if it was a wingless saucer, a shopping cart, or in the shape of a bowl of Skyline Chili. Everyone sincerely believed they could fly, if only for a brief moment. One guy even insisted he was planning to fly his craft home to Pittsburgh (note: he did not make it to Pittsburgh).
The event instilled so much absurd confidence that it even had me brainstorming how I could do it better myself.
Revisiting this: My biggest critique about most of these teams is that there isn’t enough emphasis on the launch.
They need a speed/power combination to get these things moving. These dudes are just hitting a light jog and hoping for the best.
They need some linebacker types. pic.twitter.com/6Lg7TjkniV
— Kevin Harrish (@Kevinish) August 15, 2023
And I wasn’t alone in that! Johnson was doing the same thing in his brain. After he had judged 39 different flights, he confidently informed me that he thinks he could build and pilot a craft would fly 60 feet (which would have been the furthest at this year’s event) and that he wanted to compete next year.
“During the judging, I got a little irritated,” Johnson told The Comeback. “Because I think my creativity can get me about 60 feet. I’m not going to say anything now. I’m going to talk to the higher-ups and see if I can not only judge next year but if I can enter the contest during the contest, then go back to judging.”
The event was nothing short of thrilling and inspired the belief that you too can glide through the sky on a homemade aircraft – even if you probably can’t.
If you missed this year’s event, the good news is that you can still catch the national broadcast as ESPN2 will air a replay of Red Bull Flugtag Cincinnati on Saturday, Aug. 19 from 6 – 7 p.m. And there’s plenty of time to make sure to see it in person next year.