Roc-ettes Have Fun, Gain Real-World Experience at Red Bull Flugtag Event

  • The Roc-ettes pose with their aircraft in the staging area at the Red Bull Flugtag on Aug. 5. The team of Swanson School of Engineering students and one recent graduate competed with 37 teams. From left, Paul Gatto, Nick Bertani, Rina Zhang, Chad Foster, Ryan Blair and Theo Schwarz.
  • The Roc-ettes perform their dance routine before launching their 24-foot winged aircraft into the Allegheny River. The Red Bull Flugtag judges teams on distance, craft creativity and showmanship. From left, in helmets and lifevests, are Theo Schwarz, Paul Gatto, Rina Zhang, Nick Bertani and Ryan Blair.
  • Rina Zhang pilots the Roc-ettes' aircraft off a 22-foot-high platform over the Allegheny River on Aug. 5. Her teammates, in red vests and helmets, watch after pushing the craft off the edge. From left, Nick Bertani, Ryan Blair, Paul Gatto and Theo Schwarz.
  • The Roc-ettes' aircraft, piloted by Rina Zhang, dives from the 22-foot launchpad into the Allegheny River. Her teammates, wearing red vests and helmets, watch from the platform.
  • Members of the Roc-ettes plunge into the Allegheny River in solidarity with pilot Rina Zhang after launching the aircraft during the Red Bull Flugtag at the EQT Three Rivers Regatta on Aug. 5.

For a Pitt team, competing in the Red Bull Flugtag — a traveling competition for teams and their homemade aircraft — wasn’t just about winning.

The group of students and a recent alumnus of the Swanson School of Engineering, dubbed the Roc-ettes — a play on the name of Pitt's panther mascot Roc — challenged themselves, learned a lot and came away with an experience unlike any other.

More Fun With Flugtag

Learn more about how the Roc-ettes prepared for the competition.

“We learned helpful information on designing and building such a massive object,” said Ryan Blair, a mechanical engineering alumnus, of the 24-foot machine. “We researched, designed and built a craft using our technical knowledge. We applied what we learned in school.

“Most of all, we had a blast. It's an experience we will never forget, and we are incredibly grateful to have participated in the event,” he added.

The Roc-ettes competed as one of more than three dozen teams on Aug. 5 at the Red Bull Flugtag during the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta. Each team was out to prove its craft could launch off of a platform above the crowd and then travel the farthest with the best performance before taking the plunge into the Allegheny River. The teams varied from amateurs and hobbyists to students and aerospace engineers.

Staying true to the Roc-ettes' name, the team took to the launch platform donning costumes consisting of "panther fur," tails and tutus while performing a high-kick dance line, a la The Rockettes, to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and other classic songs.

The dance routine got the attention of the judges and announcers, who complimented the team prior to launch.

Blair said being up on the platform wasn’t intimidating.

“We walked out ahead of time, maybe that helped, but I really felt comfortable,” Blair said. “We danced and flew to Sinatra, so that helped our nerves as well.”

It was a different feeling for Rina Zhang, a mechanical engineering student, who actually had to pilot the craft over the edge into the river.

“I was a little nervous, as flying a homemade glider over a 22-foot drop is a novel experience for most people,” Zhang said.

Making realistic and conservative assumptions is something that’s been emphasized in my coursework, and I got to see the consequences of overly optimistic design firsthand.

Rina Zhang, engineering student and Roc-ette pilot

With partly cloudy skies and an inconsistent wind blowing against their backs, the team gave its aircraft and Zhang a running shove off the platform over the river. But like many of the homemade human-powered aircrafts that entered the competition, it didn’t quite go the distance.

“We had a tail wind that really hurt us initially,” Blair said. “It slightly pushed our leading edge down, which lowered our angle of attack and ultimately made it impossible to produce lift leading to a nose dive.”

Zhang said there was no control due to the wind conditions and slow takeoff speed. “We didn’t know that the event director on the runway would have the guys who were pushing the cart slow down so much before we reached the end" —  a safety precaution so they didn’t run off the edge — "but that definitely was an issue as we couldn’t generate lift,” she said.

After Zhang and the craft hit the water, the rest of the team soon jumped in for a quick dip in the Allegheny.

“The plunge was awesome!” Blair said. “The water wasn't that cold; however, it was quite a bit muckier than your typical swimming pool.”

The day's competition was won by a team of aerospace engineers from Virginia calling themselves Flight at the Roxbury, who didn't go the farthest, but whose points for creativity and showmanship put them over the top. Though they didn't take home the top prize, the Roc-ettes emerged from the competition with knowledge gained. If they competed in another Flugtag event, Blair said, the team would test different positions for the pilot to attain a more optimal center of mass location, fundraise more effectively to obtain better materials like shrink wrap for the wings and practice more.

Zhang said designing and building the craft was “a great learning experience” that really emphasized the importance of conservative design assumptions.

“I think the key issue was that the wing was designed for optimal conditions" — fast takeoff speed, strong headwind — "and was actually launched in very poor conditions,” Zhang said. “Making realistic and conservative assumptions is something that’s been emphasized in my coursework, and I got to see the consequences of overly optimistic design firsthand.”