Cedar Rapids Gazette: Iowa Engineering Students Build Aircraft for Red Bull Flugtag Competition

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Group hopes their human-powered machine takes flight at Lake Michigan

Equipped with little more than a helmet and Styrofoam, University of Iowa engineering student Steve Cowperthwait will plunge off of a 30-foot pier into Chicago’s Lake Michigan this Saturday in hopes of flight and victory.

Though it sounds like a stunt, the 22-year-old mechanical engineering student from Illinois said he will take the dive — with the help of his team – as a chance to test his engineering skills through Red Bull’s Flugtag Competition.

The competition, which was first held in the United States in 2002, calls on amateurs to construct their own human-powered flying contraptions and fly them off a 30-foot pier while in competition against other groups, according to Red Bull’s website. Judges then score each team based on their distance flown, creativity, and showmanship to select a winner.

And after six months of preparation, Cowperthwait said he thinks his team’s rocket-like aircraft — constructed of Styrofoam, cardboard, duct tape, wood and gorilla glue — is advanced enough to win the competition. He said he and his team, ”Team Rocket,” has built a lever that will allow the pilot to adjust the pitch of the aircraft to prevent it from nose-diving into the water.

“That’s the huge thing in being able to get performance out of (the aircraft), because you don’t have control over it,” Cowperthwait said. “Because if you don’t have any control over it, if it goes into a dive it will just dive and go into the water, but if you have the ability to control it you can at least pitch it up and level out, so I think that’s probably going to be one of our deciding factors.”

The contraption must weigh under 450 pounds, including the pilot, and have a wingspan no longer than 30 feet. Those participating are also required to be at leaset 18 years old and sign a waiver before they take flight.

Team Rocket said they began construction on their flying contraption the week before classes began. And though they have spent a little over $500 on their materials, Cowperthwait said Voss Distributing, a local Red Bull vendor, has donated $500 to help alleviate those costs.

On Saturday, Cowperthwait will sit on the center of the flying contraption, which will be mounted on a 10-foot truss on top of the 30-foot pier. Then, Team Rocket will push the truss and their rocket 100 feet to the end of the dock, where Cowperthwait said he will, hopefully, take flight.

“I’m nervous and excited at the same time,” Cowperthwait said. “I’m hoping nothing goes wrong. You get a helmet and a life preserver and we’ll sign our lives away when we get there.”

Though team members agreed that Cowperthwait was the brains behind the construction of Team Rocket’s flying contraption, the group — who met through the UI’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics student organization — agreed they have had fun assisting in building their contraption and testing their skills.

UI sophomore Abhinav Sharma said he enjoyed the construction process because he typically works on the computer and programming side of engineering.

“I have always been the guy who sits in front of the programs and stuff and does nothing actually related to the building,” Sharma said. “But through this, I learned how to use so many machines. I usually prefer directing people over using the machines myself, but it was fun.”

But even if Team Rocket doesn’t come away with a prize, the group agreed the experience has been well worth it.

“It will be a fun experience even if we don’t win,” said environmental engineering student  Brandon Dolan. “The whole memory of it will be great and it will definitely but a cap on my senior year and my whole University of Iowa experience.”