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The Lessons of Flugtag

You often learn more when things don’t go as planned.

I watched helplessly as the airplane hurtled toward its watery grave. My vision of a perfect flight, of winning the 2016 Red Bull Flugtag competition in front of 40,000 spectators, of bringing glory to MIT, shattered in an instant. It was the most humiliating and disappointing moment of my life.

A year earlier, I had traveled to Portland, Oregon, with a group of MIT friends to compete in our first Flugtag. Flugtag (flying day in German) is an event at once ridiculous and inspiring: costume-­wearing teams ascend a 28-foot platform over water, perform a goofy dance, and launch a human-piloted glider they’ve designed and built to see who can fly the farthest. While most entries resemble parade floats and swiftly plummet to their doom, some teams apply rigorous aerospace engineering to create gliders that truly soar. Armed with six MIT degrees in aerospace, our team, known as the MIT Monkey Ballers, decided to shoot for the record.

Three months, $6,000, 1,500 man-hours, and the most nerve-racking U-Haul drive of my life later, we stood clad in banana suits with an airplane that had a serious chance of victory. But boat traffic for 100,000 spectators clogged the river, and just as we were donning our helmets and life jackets, the Coast Guard shut down the event. Crushed—and out thousands of dollars from our own pockets—we vowed to return the next year. And as luck would have it, 2016 brought Flugtag to Boston.

We formed a new team of six and decided to take every aspect of our entry to its extreme. We partnered with MIT Aero-Astro so we could use a fully equipped hangar and machine shop. We enlisted the MIT News Office to video each stage of the build, and we publicized our banana suits all over social media. We raised $10,000 in generous corporate and fan donations, and we drew on years of aerospace experience, consulting industry experts on wing configuration, stability modeling, flight-path optimization, simulation, construction methods, and pilot safety. We found a professional test pilot who volunteered to fly our plane, towed behind a car at 20 miles per hour, to test its controllability. We even prepared to leap into the river by jumping from the MIT high-dive platform. We thought we had all bases covered.

I went into competition day 100 percent confident, and I wasn’t shy about my sentiment. I had been guaranteeing a win to MIT, our sponsors, the press, our fans, and Red Bull alike for months. Then we took to the platform and pushed our plane down the runway. The pilot expertly banked the wings to keep straight; we sprinted and gave a final hard push, watching our plane climb several feet into the air, the full weight lifted by the enormous, majestic wings. It was the perfect launch.

But shortly after takeoff, the wire from the joystick to the tail snapped, so the pilot lost all elevator control. We watched in horror as our plane, with the tail stuck in the nose-down position, dove into the water. We barely made it 30 feet. Our pilot broke his wrist. And our team was disqualified for attempting to salvage our plane.

I couldn’t sleep for a week. As team leader, I felt responsible for letting down our school and fans, and for injuring a close friend who’d placed his trust in me. But with self-reflection and overwhelming support from Monkey Baller Nation, I realized we have much to be proud of.

I discovered it was our passion for aviation, not our promise to win, that made our supporters so loyal. I realized, too, that failure testing and quality control are integral parts of any project. All plans have weak points.

I also saw firsthand how difficult it really is to succeed in aerospace; I know of no other field in which the tolerance for error is so low. Aerospace history from the Wright brothers to the space program is littered with disasters, and we were lucky to be counting our lost investment in thousands instead of millions, our casualties in broken bones instead of lives.

Most important, I realized that this project is just a stepping stone in a longer journey. Our team dared to fly across the Charles and failed. But the lessons we learned, the relationships we developed, and the incredible accomplishment we will feel when we finally do succeed have me counting Flugtag Boston 2016 as a victory.

William Thalheimer ’14, SM ’16,served as team leader for the MIT Monkey Ballers, which included Hayden Cornwell ’15, SM ’17; Alexander Feldstein ’15, SM ’17; Cory Frontin, SM ’17; Michael Klinker ’14, SM ’16; and Michael Tomovich, SM ’14.

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