Human-powered Microsoft plane to take to the air, but not for long
A team of Microsoft employees has built a human-powered aircraft to compete in Red Bull's Flugtag.
Seattle Times technology reporter
Red Bull FlugtagThe 19-year flying competition challenges people to build homemade aircraft. Four competitions are taking place around the U.S. this summer. Saturday's event in Long Beach, Calif., is the only West Coast event.
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pine Avenue Pier, Long Beach
Teams: There are 37 teams, ranging from firefighters to college students. Microsoft is fielding the only team from the Seattle area.
Prizes: First place: Flight with Red Bull Air Race World Champion Kirby Chambliss at his ranch in Arizona. Second place: Sky diving with the Red Bull Air Force. Third place: Paragliding lessons. People's Choice award: Viewing party for the team and friends at a bar or restaurant.
One team member has a black belt in jujitsu. Another was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force. One moonlights as the Seahawks mascot Blitz.
It's not a sequel to "The Expendables."
It's a team of Microsoft employees that will push a human-powered aircraft off a ramp 30 feet above water to compete Saturday in Red Bull's Flugtag in Long Beach, Calif. They could end up being the most ordinary of the teams in the 19-year-old competition.
The contest, featured in the energy drink's TV commercials, has hosted teams dressed as Elvis, The Flintstones and Captain America. Past entrants have launched a miniature pink Cadillac, a plane called the Alfmeister and a Winnebago inspired by the movie "Spaceballs."
On Saturday, the Microsoft team's Windows Project Phoenix glider will have its first — and probably last — flight.
"It's daring, risky and a little crazy," said team member Brian Lysak, a senior Windows program manager.
As he remembers it, the conversations started like this six weeks ago:
"Do you know how to build a plane?"
"I don't either."
Each takeoff is preceded by a 30-second dance number. A team of four pushes the pilot and aircraft off a 30-foot flight deck built at the edge of an ocean pier. And then they hope.
In past Flugtags ("flying day" in German), some planes crashed before they even left the ramp. Others did a tail-over-nose flip dive straight down into the water.
The Flugtag record is 207 feet, shorter than the full length of a Boeing 747. Keep in mind, though, that the first powered flight by the Wright brothers went just 120 feet.
The Microsoft team wants to beat the record with a low-speed glider. The team wrote in its contest entry form: "This is all about fun. And ... victory! Mostly it's about fun, though. And ... victory! We're packing all of our nerd energy into our 30-second skit, complete with suave charm, blistering wit, and blinding good looks."
The competition, at least for showmanship, is stiff. A 7-Eleven team is building a giant flying Big Gulp. A women's team from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has proposed a giant flying Peep. One team is working on a giant hand that will launch a pilot in a paper airplane, set to the M.I.A. song "Paper Planes." A group of Navy trainers called "Team Roundhouse" has a plane with a giant Chuck Norris head.
As with a typical Microsoft project, the Phoenix team has engineers, a marketing manager and a public-relations representative. Unlike with most Microsoft projects, the plane came together in six weeks. For a company that prides itself on multiple rounds of testing, this plane never has had even a beta flight. ("It might just come off and go straight down," Lysak said).
Most notably, no one put together a deck of PowerPoint slides.
Mike Arntzen, a program manager for the Windows ecosystem, says he believes the Phoenix can beat the Flugtag record. The design concept is a glider that can fly at human running speed, he said.
"It's very light, very flexible but very strong," said Arntzen, who has a pilot's license and served in the Royal Australian Air Force as an engineer. To demonstrate, he propped up a 15-foot, 20-pound wing with a finger.
The team built the glider on weeknights and weekends in a seaplane hangar at a friend's house on the shores of Lake Sammamish.
Ryan Asdourian, a senior product manager with the Windows business group who also is a part-time Seahawks mascot, first heard about the event from a Red Bull marketing manager.
Asdourian sent a couple of messages to some large e-mail interest groups at Microsoft and called a meeting in Building 37 with beer and energy drinks.
The team initially thought about rallying some cash by passing the bucket. The company's Windows team then came in with financial support. The total budget to build the aircraft: $1,000.
"Everything you could buy at Home Depot, except for the carbon fiber," said Ben Rudolph, the public-relations member, the jujitsu black belt who also used to teach Israeli self-defense Krav Maga. "This is about as nerd cool as you can get."
The aircraft was in four parts in the hangar last week: two wings in Windows colors, a keel similar to a hang-glider cradle to hold the pilot and a launch built out of PVC pipe that rolls on tires taken from a jogging stroller.
They built a frame out of old windsurf masts and wrapped it in carbon fiber. The ribs were cut out of Macrolux, plastic sheets made out of recycled soda bottles. They copied a wing design from a catalog. For the wings' surface, they heat-shrank Monokote plastic over the ribs and frame, using a thicker, stronger version of the plastic film used to insulate windows during the winter.
The pilot's harness is made from a climbing harness and a dog collar that the pilot, a petite woman recruited from the Microsoft education team, can unsnap when she hits the water. The weight limit for the aircraft, pilot included, is 450 pounds.
Before the launch, the pilot and four pushers will dance to a song featuring Windows startup and shutdown sound effects. They will wear full-body skintight Morphsuits in the Windows colors.
The four pushers will end up running off the ramp into the water three stories below.
That part they're not worried about.
One of the members has been sky diving. And two others have done some cliff diving.
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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