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Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

"Flügtag" might also be called "Krashtag."

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Crafty folks and crazy craft dominate Lake - Erie-bound Red Bull Flgtag.
  • Crafty folks and crazy craft dominate Lake Erie-bound Red Bull Flgtag.

Fortysomething Bob Ferguson still feels like a wide-eyed first-grader when he's glued to the TV, watching his favorite horror shows. Ever since he was a kid -- when Ghoulardi was the area's most revered host -- he's been addicted to boob-tube screamfests. "For a great deal of my life, I've been able to remain that six-year-old for a few hours each week," says Ferguson, who runs a shoe-repair shop in Akron. "Throughout the United States, in horror-host fan circles, Cleveland remains the undisputed mecca."

So it was a no-brainer when Ferguson christened his Red Bull Flügtag entry the "Ghoulardi Glider," one of 28 engineless contraptions chosen to compete in this year's in-flight face-off. With $7,500 in cash or a pilot's training course as the top prize, the competition includes teams (up to six crew members) from Ohio and eight other states. Their mission is to push handmade machines off a 25-foot ramp and over Lake Erie -- or at least as far as they can go over Lake Erie before they plunge into the water (the world record is 195 feet). "With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the backdrop, I figured there would be a plethora of guitar and rock themes," Ferguson explains. "I chose to aim toward the road less likely to be taken, something really Cleveland."

On Saturday, Cleveland hosts the last of three flügtags ("flying days" in German) happening this year (others were held in Miami and Portland, Oregon). Each one has attracted as many as 70,000 spectators to cheer on the daredevil squads. But in Europe, up to 250,000 people show up at each competition to place bets on which aircraft will belly-flop into the water the fastest. "In fact, from what I've seen and studied, the first great hurdle is for the craft to simply make it to the edge of the ramp," Ferguson says. "Many don't."

He found that out all too quickly at last year's flügtag in Chicago, where he piloted a plane that resembled a flying pig. It immediately nose-dived into Lake Michigan and placed 25th out of 35 teams. "The truth is, much of what we had planned went awry," he says. "Our secret weapon -- five gallons of chocolate pudding that was planned to exit out Pigasus's rear -- couldn't be activated. I went [into the lake] in the best of positions -- something like a crucifixion posture, a quasi-paratrooper drop. Yet, it still cleaned my clock a little."

But time is on Ferguson's side this year. He and his four teammates (including local TV host Keven "Son of Ghoul" Scarpino) drew up sketches for their 12-foot-long aircraft. Staying within the competition's guidelines, it weighs a little less than 450 pounds. "About half of that will be me," Ferguson laughs. "With the experience of flying, albeit vertically, in Chicago behind us, we've been able to lick our wounds and learn from our mistakes."

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