Labor Day leap

Liz Durham

While most Villanova students were sunning themselves on beaches or catching up on schoolwork over Labor Day weekend, freshman Eric Gilligan was competing in the Red Bull Flugtag competition at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. 

On Sept. 4, spectators gathered around the Delaware River to watch 32 teams of daredevils compete to see who could fly the farthest off a 26-foot flight deck. Competitors were judged not only on distance traveled, but also on creativity and showmanship of the craft and team. This includes costumes, craft design and innovativeness of the 30-second skit.

Amish buggies, soaring clocks, papier-mâché llamas and green men were among the themes competitors chose to show off their inventiveness. 

Contestants are judged on some criteria. The machines must be entirely human-powered, using absolutely no external energy sources — “Cool Runnings”-style, in other words. Also, the craft can weigh no more than 450 pounds, including the pilot. 

There was no lack in creativity from Gilligan as he rocketed his best friend of five years off the runway to the theme from “Chariots of Fire.” That, combined with their impromptu Red Bull shower, incited chants from over 80,000 fans in attendance. 

As gusts from Hurricane Earl blew over the river, competitors grew uneasy, wondering how the new weather conditions would affect their flight. 

“To be honest, I was really nervous for him.” Gilligan says. “There was a huge tail wind, and he was literally rocketed into the river, straight drop.”

Gilligan and his three best friends from high school hadn’t originally planned on competing in the event, but instead chose to design the craft as part of their senior project. It was a “last hoorah” for the four amigos before they went their separate ways to college. 

They submitted their application back in May, and when they found out they were accepted, decided to join this almost 20-year tradition. 

They evaluated their design and decided some changes should probably be made if they were actually going to compete.

“We were kind of surprised,” Gilligan says. “Of course we thought, ‘Wow, we’re actually going to fly this. We should probably rebuild it.'” 

It was at this point that they fully decided to take part in the tradition that is Flugtag. 

The first Flugtag competition was back in 1991 in Vienna, Austria. Since then, 80 different Red Bull Flugtags have been held around the world, both in the United States and internationally. Flugtag, which means “flying day” in German, is held more than one day a year. Competitions this year were held in Miami, Long Beach, the Twin Cities and Philadelphia. 

Among the thousands of spectators were fellow Villanova students, including Flugtag enthusiast senior John Charles Lamb, who attended the competition this year and in London back in 2008.”

“Red Bull Flugtag was such a great afternoon,” Lamb says. “The teams were hilarious. Some didn’t even make it off the runway, but the costumes made us cheer even harder.”

As the time approached for the competition to begin, the winds became so strong that Red Bull decided it was safest to delay for a while, according to Lamb. After about 30 minutes of waiting, the event commenced and the crafts started flying, or, in some cases, diving.

The winning craft was “The Flying Llamas,” which flew 42 feet. While Gilligan’s team wasn’t among the top-ranking competitors, he still says he had an unforgettable experience.

“For the amount of money we spent and the amount of fun we had, there is really no regret,” Gilligan says. “We would love to compete again if the opportunity presents itself.”