Six young engineers with ties to UND have built an aircraft they plan to enter in the 2019 Red Bull Flugtag competition slated for Saturday, Sept. 7, in St. Paul. “Flugtag” means “flying day” in German.
The Grand Forks team, dubbed the Tater Tot Titans, is among 40 teams selected to participate in the event, which is expected to draw 32 teams from Minnesota, including 25 from the Twin Cities.
The event is hailed as “the world’s one-of-a-kind, human-powered flying craft competition,” according to a news release.
The teams are challenged to design and construct an aircraft that will glide the greatest distance over the Mississippi River when pushed by four team members off a 30-foot-high pier at Harriet Island Regional Park.
Participants are invited to devise a unique, creative design that follows a theme “and make it look like an airplane,” said Kendrick Heck, a Grand Forks team member who will pilot the craft.
The members of the Tater Tot Titans built their aircraft in a large, industrial garage-like workspace at the UND College of Engineering and Mines.
Five of the members graduated from UND in May, all with mechanical engineering degrees. Heck and Grant Ramage are employed in the aerospace industry at Northrop Grumman in Grand Forks. Kyle Batten, an intern at Northrop Grumman, plans to graduate from UND with his engineering degree in May.
Other team members are Karch Anderson, who lives in the Twin Cities, Andrew Sather, of Bismarck, and Matt Vrchota, of Fargo.
“I’ve always wanted to do this, ever since I saw it 10 years ago,” Vrchota said. “It seemed like an interesting challenge.”
Ramage learned about the event online, he said.
“I thought, this looks interesting,” he said and started recruiting his fellow students to join the effort.
To qualify for the event, the team membe4rs submitted a sketch of their design and a 400-word essay describing “why our design would be best,” Vrchota said. They submitted their application in June and were accepted in July.
Ramage had seen earlier contests online where teams had designed their aircraft to pay homage to the Vikings and the musician, Prince, he said.
“We knew we needed a theme,” said Ramage. “So we said, ‘What’s the most Midwestern thing you can think of?’ ”
The name of their team, the Tater Tot Titans, is a nod to the culture of North Dakota and Minnesota, well-known for hot dishes, a popular comfort food.
The design features chunks of foam, spray painted to resemble tater tots, layered in flat broad pans placed atop the mid-section, or fuselage, of the craft.
Orange oven mitts are painted on the wings, and a spatula is stenciled on the tail.
The aircraft, which measures 25 feet wide and 20 feet long, is made of wood, foam, aluminum and plastic and weighs about 70 pounds
“It’ll be about 200 pounds with the pilot," Vrchota said.
The pilot will be positioned “in the front of the plane in a hanging configuration,” Ramage said.
The most critical part was “getting the wing design right,” Vrchota said. “I think we have a good wing design.”
The wings are made of house insulation foam, which has been cut into teardrop shapes that serve as vertical “ribs,” Batten said.
“The structure of it is poplar wood,” Batten said, “and the covering is industrial Saran Wrap.”
Three-D printed plastic rectangles, with a slot for a stabilizing wood panel to slide through, hold the ribs in place, he said.
The team members estimate that their investment totals just over $1,000, said Ramage, noting that costs have been covered by two sponsors, businesses owned by the families of two team members.
Team members also have invested plenty of time, Heck said.
“We worked four weekends and, before that, in the designing, some pretty packed, 10-hour days," he said.
They’ve put their engineering knowledge to work, especially “in selecting the hardware and materials, and analyzing the stress on different components, and figuring out if it’s going to break,” Heck said.
“We didn’t want to overanalyze it,” Ramage said. “We also wanted to have fun.”
Red Bull Flugtag competitions have been staged all over the world, from Australia to Italy. The first time St. Paul hosted the event was in 2010, when the then world-record was set at 207 feet in front of an audience of tens of thousands.
At this weekend’s competition, teams will be judged on the distance that the aircraft glides, the design of the aircraft and a 30-second dance routine each team performs.
The Grand Forks team’s routine, which re-enforces the tater tot theme, was choreographed by their girlfriends, according to Ramage, who noted that he and his teammates will wear theme-appropriate costumes and use an oversized spatula as a prop.
“The top three teams get some sort of prize -- some sort of trophy -- and will be recognized by Red Bull,” but don’t advance to another level of competition, Vrchota said.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the project has been the realization that they’ve built something durable, Batten said.
“Lifting it up the first time and not having it break felt pretty good," he said.
The Tater Tot Titans will transport the aircraft via a 16-foot-long, rented trailer to St. Paul on Friday, Sept. 6. They’ll be assigned a hanger space where they’ll assemble it.
On Saturday morning, a Red Bull Flugtag inspection team will check out their craft, “to make sure it’s OK for flight,” Ramage said.
Heck, the pilot, who will wear a life jacket and helmet, isn’t too concerned for his safety, because he’ll fly over water and event organizers prioritize safety, he said.
“Right now, 30 feet doesn’t sound like much, but I think when I get there, 30 feet will look pretty high," he said.
His flight “will probably last about five to 10 seconds if everything goes right,” he said. “If it goes bad, it’ll be less than three seconds.”