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Giant mosquitoes and flying burgers: Red Bull Flugtag returns to St. Paul

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Ian Voigt holds up a wing
Ian Voigt holds up a wing as it’s being fastened to his team's "Buzzy the Mosquito" aircraft at St. Paul's Harriet Island on Friday, a day ahead of the Red Bull Flugtag competition.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

If everything goes as planned Saturday, Charlie Ott will dress up like a pickle, gather with a few of his friends along the Mississippi River in St. Paul and launch a glider shaped like a giant Jucy Lucy burger off a 30-foot-high tower.

They'll be joined by a giant mosquito named Buzzy, an aircraft honoring the skyscraper-climbing "MPR Raccoon" and a few dozen other homemade flying contraptions.

For the first time in nearly a decade, Red Bull Flugtag (German for "flying day") is back in St. Paul. Starting at noon Saturday, the teams and their engineless aircraft will jump off the tower — and either plummet or glide into the river below. Teams will be scored on craftsmanship, showmanship and distance as a crowd of thousands looks on.

True to the freewheeling spirit of the event that's been held in cities all over the world, Ott said he’s not sure the Jucy Lucy craft will soar at all. But he doesn’t much mind. He’s in it somewhat for the laughs; his team — they all work at a St. Paul burger restaurant called the Nook — has prepared a dance. 

Charlie Ott poses for a photo with his team's "Jucy Lucy" glider
Charlie Ott poses for a photo with his team's "Jucy Lucy" glider at Harriet Island in St. Paul on Friday, a day ahead of the Red Bull Flugtag competition.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

“You definitely have a little bit of a funny bone to go ahead and fly a Jucy Lucy off a 30-foot ramp," he said.

The burger on a sesame seed bun has cheese oozing from the inside. It rests in a basket. And the wings? Ott described them.

“This is supposed to be the bacon flying wing. The only thing is, we didn’t quite know how to paint bacon, so we figured this would at least remind you of bacon, in its essence," he said.

Ott surveyed some of the other planes on the lawn outside the Harriet Island pavilion on Friday, a day ahead of the competition. He said it’s clear the rival teams have a leg up.

“Seeing some of these other projects and meeting some of the other people with their backgrounds in aviation and flight and stuff like that, I think we’re a little out of our book here. For sure," he said.

Ian Voigt and Joe Birkemeyer work on their team's "Buzzy the Mosquito"
Ian Voigt and Joe Birkemeyer work on their team's "Buzzy the Mosquito" aircraft at St. Paul's Harriet Island on Friday, a day ahead of the Red Bull Flugtag competition.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

One of those other teams is behind Buzzy the mosquito. It's a crew from Brainerd that includes Joe Birkemeyer, who said the design is symbolically fitting of the team's hometown.

“We grow them Grade A large up in Brainerd, Minnesota, so that’s kind of why we decided to go with the mosquito," he said.

Birkemeyer and others on the team have experience in aviation, so a lot of thought went into the aluminum and foam design.

“I’ve got roots in the float industry, the seaplane industry. That’s one of the reasons why we picked foam," he said. "In the event that we do touch the water we’re going to float, similar to a seaplane.”

The competition’s rules limit the total weight, with pilot, to 400 pounds. The craft can’t be any taller than 10 feet or longer than 20. Four people push the craft to the edge of a ramp, and the rest is up to physics and gravity.

The last time Flugtag was held in St. Paul, in 2010, one team glided about 200 feet to set an event record that's since been broken. The mosquito team from Brainerd said they want to set another record.

Ian Voigt is taking courses in Mankato, Minn., to become an actual pilot. He was chosen to ride Buzzy — in a Paul Bunyan costume — because he’s the lightest on his team.

“You have to be a little more aerodynamic. That’s why I got picked," he said.

The nature of the event means most, if not all of the aircraft will be flying for the first time Saturday. The mosquito was finished just this week, but Voigt said “I’ve got confidence in it.”

"We've got to be confident," he said. "I mean, I've never flown the thing. Nobody's flown it. You've got to have hopes, right?"