These days, we take flying for granted. We walk aboard commercial airplanes, and although we don't understand how they work, we're confident that, thanks to the technology embodied in these complex machines, some teeny part, possibly in the toilet, will malfunction and we will be delayed.
But sometimes planes actually fly. And when they do, they become soaring monuments to the brave pioneers who made modern aviation possible - people like Wilbur and Orville Wright Brothers, Amelia (Air) Hart Earhart and Earl P. Flinchwater, who developed the computer program that guarantees that no two passengers on any given flight ever pay the same fare. And the aviation pioneering goes on. On a recent Sunday on Biscayne Bay in Miami, I watched as 28 teams of courageous young people - and here I am using the word "courageous" in the sense of "completely out of their minds" - competed in an event called "Flugtag." Flugtag (pronounced "floog tog") is sponsored by the Red Bull energy beverage. I tried one, and it gave me a refreshing lift. I hope to be able to sleep again by Halloween.
In Flugtag, which is German for either "Flying Day" or "Make Sure Everybody Signs a Liability Waiver," competitors build human-powered aircraft, then push them off a 30-foot-high platform and see how far they can fly. Competitors also get points for style, so they wear costumes and perform skits just before their flights.
Before the competition, I examined the aircraft, which were duct-tape-intensive contraptions representing a wide range of aerodynamic concepts. One was a giant replica of Homer Simpson, lying on his back, arms outstretched to form wings. Another was shaped like an enormous pigeon. It was completely covered with feathers, as was its flight team.
I asked the pigeon's designer, Corby Rusk, if he thought the pigeon would actually fly.
"Of course!" he said. "The feathers will give it lift! Feathers fly, right?"
Some of the entries looked vaguely like actual airplanes; others did not even have wings. One, entered by a team from England, was shaped like a giant bowler hat. My personal favorite, called "Joy of Birth," was an enormous cow lying on her back. The cow team members were also dressed as cows. Their skit involved opening the cow's legs in a clinically gynecological manner and having a team member slide down a ramp and shoot out the birth canal into the bay. "Tasteful" does not begin to describe it.
The competition was excellent. Virtually every flight went the same: The team would push its craft onto the 30-foot-high flight platform and be announced by an unnaturally enthusiastic emcee who sounded as though his blood content was 80% Red Bull. Then, at the big moment, the team's pilot would climb into the craft, and the other team members would push the craft toward the end of the platform, gaining speed, until the dramatic moment when the craft would go off the end, and - in a triumph of human ingenuity - fall straight down into the bay.
Yes. Virtually every craft displayed the aerodynamic characteristics of a crowbar. Some of them - notably the ones that resembled real airplanes - appeared to fall even faster than could be explained by gravity alone. Several fell apart before they even reached the platform edge.
This went on for more than three hours, yet it somehow remained riveting entertainment. You can have your Masters Golf Tournament and your Super Bowl; give me overcaffeinated young people crashing in underengineered contraptions any day.
The crowd also loved it. At one point, the emcee was interviewing a team about to compete, and somebody noted that one of the team members had a prosthetic leg. The emcee turned to the crowd and shouted - I swear I am not making this up - "Give it up, Miami, for the prosthetic leg!" And Miami, not known as a generous town, did.
Anyway, the next time you're on a plane, waiting for a toilet part, take a moment to reflect on the efforts of these bold modern-day aviation pioneers to advance the frontiers of human flight. Then look at the wings. If you see feathers, get off.