This summer, 40 teams will be launching homemade, human-powered airships off of a 27-foot-tall flight deck in Milwaukee and gliding over — and then into — Lake Michigan.
Red Bull Flugtag — named after the German word for “flying day” — has been around for more than three decades. This is the first time Wisconsin will be hosting the event, where teams compete to see whose craft can fly the longest distance without using motors, batteries, rockets or other power.
The world record is 78.5 meters — a bit less than the length of a football field.
Sixty teams submitted designs to be a part of the July 16 competition at Veterans Park; 40 were selected, based on how “amusing” their designs were and how likely it is the crafts will actually be able to fly. Most of the teams are from Wisconsin, but about four are out-of-towners, including from Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Arkansas.
On the day of the event, team hangars will open at noon and the opening ceremonies will start at 1 p.m. Teams will push their craft — with one member, designated as pilot, onboard — as far as the end of the flight deck. Whether the craft then soars to a new record or crashes directly into the water is up to physics, the pilot and the soundness of the design.
Teams will be judged on creativity of their airship’s design, their performance — oftentimes including costumes and choreography — and the distance of their flight, a news release said.
And the ones judging them? Former Green Bay Packers star Donald Driver, Nick Lorenz, a snocross Red Bull Athlete from Kenosha, among others.
Prizes include exclusive Red Bull experiences, meet-and-greets with Red Bull athletes and more, a news release said.
All of the crews are currently in the process of constructing their human-powered flying machines. Here are the stories of four local teams, from a group of Nashotah dads to college students from Ripon.
Nashotah dads making patriotic airship to honor veterans
An airship that “screams America.” That’s what five dads from a Nashotah subdivision are building to pay homage to the country and its veterans.
“It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to participate,” said Rick Verthein, a wealth manager at Baird. “It’s just something fun and different to do.”
The goal is to make their flying machine look like an eagle while incorporating the colors red, white and blue. Members of “Team America” have strong connections to the military, Verthein explained, plus the Flugtag event comes less than two weeks after Independence Day.
“Team America” is using their platform to support Kids For Vets, which raises funds for veterans and families who lost loved ones in battle, according to the organization’s website. The team is looking for sponsors to help benefit the organization.
In addition to Verthein, “Team America” is made up of team captain Dan Lambert, an attorney; Adam Booth, an IT project manager; Derek Thiel, a chiropractor; and Jared Galassini, a chief financial officer who will be piloting the airship.
“When we met and our kids met, we knew we just had to be best friends because we were going to be going to school together for at least the next 18 years,” Verthein said. “So we might as well get to know all of our neighbors and have some fun together.”
The dads started getting ready for the competition by looking at designs and videos from past Flugtag events, and also consulted with another neighbor, an engineer for Harley-Davidson.
The group worked on drawing out designs, then purchased materials, such as foam, PVC, fabric and wheels for takeoff.
On building nights, the crew meets up around 8 or 9 p.m. in one of their garages and “pull some late hours,” Verthein said.
“We’re definitely going to have the best plane, the best act, maybe not fly the farthest but we’re gonna try,” he said.
Direct Supply employees’ airplane features giant KN95 mask, shower chair
A team made up of employees of Milwaukee-based Direct Supply — which sells medical supplies to senior living facilities — is constructing an airplane-looking flying machine that features a massive KN95 mask on its nose and a shower chair that their company sells.
Blake Adams, who works in the company’s software department, said Direct Supply advocates for seniors in congregate living, and that their team’s goal is to highlight the company, “the fun things that we do and support our mission.”
After Adams’ wife told him about the Flugtag, he asked if anyone at work was interested in forming a team.
“It stirred quite a buzz rather immediately,” Adams said.
Brad Schnell, Bob Laferriere, Gary Summers and Rick Gearheart, who all work in the technology department with Adams, were on board.
Schnell, who is a licensed private pilot, said he’s been working with the “KN95 Kruiserz” team on airplane physics and will also be piloting their creation.
“I’ve never done a non-powered flight before and it’s a new experience, but it’s been fun to apply my aviation knowledge in a different way,” Schnell said.
The organization the coworkers are fundraising for is one Schnell — and his employer — have been supporting for years.
Dream Flights honors veterans and seniors by giving them flights in Boeing Stearman biplanes. During an annual event the company and local senior living facilities sponsor, Schnell helps load veterans in and out of the aircrafts.
“When you’re a pilot, you literally try to find any way you can to be in and around airplanes,” Schnell said. Doing so while giving back to the community and providing memorable experiences for others makes it even better, he said.
On the weekends, the crew has been constructing their flying machine inside a warehouse on the company’s campus. They started off with sketches on graph paper, then figured out what materials they would need: Foam board Styrofoam (the kind used in the walls of a house), a furring strip and more.
Adams said the process has been similar to how they work in software — though they never expected it would someday translate to building a plane.
“We know the end goal and we know some basic steps, stopping points along the way of how to get there, and then we need to fill in the gaps,” he said. “And then if you find a problem, you have to change course.”
If the plane remains intact following the contest, the team hopes to hang it in one of Direct Supply’s buildings.
Trying to break world record using light, recycled materials
“When we saw that this was happening, we kind of thought Flugtag and Red Bull invented this for us because it’s everything we love in life,” said Mike Hansen, a member of “Flight for your Right to Party” and a real estate agent and substitute teacher.
“We love the adventure, we love getting crazy, we love all that kind of stuff, and then we also love trying to break world records,” he said.
The team’s design — which looks like a hangglider — was modeled after the current Red Bull Flugtag world record holders’ airship. In 2013, the Chicken Whisperers, a team of aerospace and mechanical engineers from California, flew 78.5 meters in the competition.
“Flight for your Right to Party” is trying to break that record — by using lighter materials, said Scott Rademaker, a geologist and the airship’s pilot.
The longtime friend group — also made up of Scott’s brother Josh, Nick Von Rueden and Shaun Hester — has been having monthly men’s beer club meet-ups for years. At one of them, the Flugtag competition came up.
They started brainstorming over beverages and came up with a design. Then they tracked down used materials, including Styrofoam from residential construction projects and boat shrink wrap from Skipper Buds and M-W Marine, Inc.
The group meets to work on the airship once a week at Scott Rademaker’s Muskego house while listening to music and sipping on brewskis.
“It is so exciting for us,” Hansen said. “It is everything we love in life. We love hanging out, we love a reason to hang out, we love a reason to build things, we love a reason to be creative and act younger than what we actually are.”
The group, now in their 40s, met as high schoolers in Waukesha.
In the past, team members have participated in cardboard boat races, and in June, the Rademaker brothers competed in Iowa’s Red Bull Soap Box Race.
College students, including three pilots, focusing on aerodynamics
The Farmers Unincorporated team is made up of five college students, including three pilots.
For years, they’ve watched videos of Red Bull Flugtag on TV on YouTube for entertainment. When the competition announced it was coming to Milwaukee, the opportunity to participate became real, team member Jonah Roeper said.
Team member Tommy Schram used a computer-aided design program called Autodesk Inventor, which he learned in high school, to design the team’s glider.
To bring it to life, the team used wood molds they made and hot wire to cut pink insulation foam boards into the pieces they needed. They’re also fiberglassing.
“We really don’t want to put too much creativity into it to spoil the aerodynamic factor of it,” Schram said. “So really, it looks like an airplane.”
The “glamour” is going to be in the cart the craft will sit on; they’re going to try to make it look like a tractor, Schram said.
All of the team members, including Mitchael Perr, Ben Retzlaff and Tyler Granados, grew up together and attended Ripon High School.
Now, Schram, Perr and Granados attend Fox Valley Technical College; Retzlaff goes to the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Roeper is a student at Ripon College.
Either Roeper or Retzlaff will pilot the craft, depending who is lighter closer to the event, Schram said. Both Roeper and Retzlaff, as well as Schram, are pilots.
This is actually the second time Schram has built a glider. The first was for a year-long project in a high school shop class.
For more information on Red Bull Flugtag coming to Milwaukee, visit redbull.com/us-en/events/red-bull-flugtag-milwaukee.
Contact Hannah Kirby at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HannahHopeKirby.