Flugtag till you drop

The trials and tribulations of a flying grape vine.

I had a problem with my disengagement. After months of lost weekends and enormous amounts of tequila, vodka, rum, whiskey and crushed ice (not to mention begging for spare bicycles, irrigation piping, old parachutes, whathaveyou), we were there. And there I was, up on stage with our flying machine ready for our fateful attempt to fly as part of the second Red Bull Flugtag competition in Tel Aviv last Friday. We had neglected our kids. We cut our fingers on rusty metal, and drew questions about our sanity. And now the moment had come. I had imagined it many times: My mates, dressed in togas, were going to push our huge wine bottle on wheels off the edge of a stage six meters above the Yarkon waters with me sitting on top and I was going to fly with the help of a giant grape leaf. Putting it in words actually makes it all sound silly. It all started about three months ago when Red Bull - that power drink that between me and you tastes like carbonated cough syrup - began advertising they were taking applications for their next competition. I called Red Bull and within the hour they had delivered by taxi a huge box that looked like it may hold a pizza but actually contained the rules and forms. That weekend, sitting around my mate Itzik's house with a group of neighbors, I threw out the idea. "Let's build a flying machine." It caught like wildfire. "I'm in," said Itzik. "Me too," said Miriam and so was Tali and Miriam's husband Amnon. That night I hung a notice on the moshav bulletin board seeking team members. I don't know what it is about the idea of simple human flight, but it ignited a wave of response. We all met at the local pub. We were all founding members of this ecological village of Li-On - Srigim in the Elah Valley, which is surrounded by vineyards and wineries. It was only natural that we adopt the wine motif with an ecological bent. Our flying machine would be a wing made in the shape of a giant grape leaf. It would be propelled atop a huge wine bottle on wheels and covered with purple balloons (grapes) that will be released at the last seconds. We'd hope to make it out of natural materials. We'd call it Afifgefen, Hebrew for flying vine, but sounding close to singer Aviv Gefen. The hardest part was cutting down the group to just five. Team members included me (the pilot), plus Tali, an aeronautical engineer, Miriam, a graphic artist and choreographer, Itzik an electrician and Amnon an industrial engineer. We sent off our entry and waited. Over 350 groups sent in entries, but two weeks later we got the phone call that would transform our summer. "You're in." Red Bull hosted the 34 teams for drinks one night and we met the other groups. Some came with matching T-shirts; some said they had been planning this since the last competition two years ago. Organizers assured us the Yarkon Park pond was not connected to the polluted Yarkon River, but it was only 1.8 meters deep. Who were these folk? It seemed to be split into two types: teams in the late-30s to 50s range, most living in kibbutzim; and the early-30s crowd - most of them with shaved heads and likely involved in hi-tech. It turned out many were engineers. Some had budgets of NIS 30,000 and sponsors. We had a drinking problem. THE RED BULL FLUGTAG actually began in Austria but soon spread to the United States. At least a dozen Flugtag (fly day) take place in various cities, each drawing their quirky designs. We were to be judged on three criteria: flying distance, creativity and our performance. I can confide here that the project consumed us. Often, traveling late at night coming home after midnight from Gush Katif through the Negev, the only thing keeping me awake behind the wheel was my imagining how I was going to build that flying contraption and take off for real. There I'd be, flying in my mind through beautiful moonlit hills, planning away, out of touch momentarily from the dramatic realities of that day, that suicide bombing, that demolition of Jewish homes, that nasty weapons deal. As the day came closer, the entire moshav seemed to pitch in. Saturdays had a stream of volunteers coming to help. Buses were ordered, banners painted. TV crews interviewed us, newspapers reported about our endeavor. And we happily obliged, struggling hard to keep our tongues in our cheeks. And finally the big day arrived. There were huge contraptions like Shuki Puki - a giant troll that would bend over and shoot the unfortunate pilot out of its anus like a fart. The group before us on stage was made up of deaf and mute immigrants from Russia who "flew" a flying saucer made out of plastic water bottles. The group called Foot-bull was actually a huge foot that would kick its pilot sitting in a Styrofoam ball to victory. There was a flying pirate ship and flying prehistoric bird. Some came prepared; others spent the night feverishly completing their machine. Judges Miki Haimovich, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu and some members of the rap band Subliminal made their rounds, examining the entries. "Have you done a test flight?" the former commander of the air force asked. Well, I jumped off a meter high terrace. You know what they say about flying; never go higher than you are prepared to fall. "Do you have any flying experience?" the Channel 10 anchor asks me. Sure, I am a paratrooper and inside every paratrooper there's a little pilot. They laughed. The Yarkon Park filled with over 100,000 spectators including a very loud and large delegation from our moshav. In keeping with our Dionysiac theme, we dressed in togas and pushed our contraption into line. On stage we could hear our supporters from across the pond. Our music began - Queen's "We Will Rock You" and the team clapped huge grape leaves in rhythm. I ripped off my toga revealing my flight suit and climbed up the bottle to my spot. In place, I set off the purple and red smoke grenades attached to the wings. All systems go. LIKE A CAR accident, I have been replaying it over and over in my mind. Everything was perfect so why did it fail? As my mates pushed our huge wine bottle on wheels toward the edge of the stage, I sat on top holding on to the bottom of the wing. Theoretically, it would rush off the edge. My wing would detach and I'd fly, or at least fall with style. Rushing forward it was like shuffling toward the back door of an airplane during a parachute jump. You can't stop even if you want to. Off the edge I dropped like a stone column, hitting the water like a garbage bag filled with tomato soup. Splat! The whole way down I kept saying, "What? No, this isn't right. Where's the lift?" And then boom. My face hit first. Ouch, that water is damn hard. The undercarriage collapsed. Then the whole wing pushed me deeper. "Oh man, I'm going to drown." Then the whole contraption lifted off of me, probably raised by the wind, and I bobbed to the surface. Deep breath. Wave to show I'm OK. I didn't feel like having the emergency scuba diver shoving that breathing tube into my mouth. A meaty hand hauled me up on the back of a jet ski. Dropped me off on shore and a TV camera was thrust in my face. I was dripping wet in my flight suit, dazed, still incredulous about the lack of flight. The wing didn't disengage. And she wanted to ask me questions. "Five meters! That's all?!" I hear one of the judges giving us half a point and the emcee Yoram Arbel saying something about how you can't give half a point. I guess we weren't getting the first prize - a trip to the Flugtag in San Francisco. That went to the last entry, "G-Rocketman," which launched a small kite from a ramp and flew for 17 meters. Second prize, a trip to Europe for the whole group to fly in a hot air balloon, went to "Pegasus," which affixed a wing atop a huge mythical horse. Their wing detached and flew 13 meters. Third prize - skydiving lessons for the whole team - went to the flying prehistoric bird, which reached 10 meters. The pirate ship with its special effects such as shooting cannons won the creativity prize - a trip to Monaco. One group, "Yellow Submarine" had actually challenged the Israeli record of 23 meters with its 21.5-meter flight. They didn't place, however, since the other teams scored higher in creativity and performance. Curiously, the winners were the last three teams out of the 34. Go figure. We don't know where we placed. Don't care. We're already planning for the next Flugtag.