Student Engineers Learn on the Fly for Aug. 5 Red Bull 'Flugtag' Contest in Pittsburgh

  • Pitt engineers pose in front of their Red Bull Flugtag aircraft at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. The team, called the Roc-ettes, will be competing Saturday during the EQT Three Rivers Regatta. The team members here are, from left, Paul Gatto, Rina Zhang, Nick Bertani, Chad Foster and Theo Schwarz.
  • Theo Schwarz, center right, makes adjustments to a Red Bull Flugtag aircraft Thursday prior to a test run at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. The team of Pitt engineers, dubbed "The Roc-ettes," is competing at the Flugtag on Saturday at the EQT Three Rivers Regatta. Rina Zhang, center left, will pilot the craft during the competition. At right with duct tape is Chad Foster.
  • Rina Zhang readies to test run a 24-foot long aircraft built by a team of Pitt engineers. She'll pilot the craft this Saturday at the Red Bull Flugtag, part of the EQT Three Rivers Regatta on the North Shore.
  • Pitt engineers test run their Red Bull Flugtag aircraft on the lawn of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. The students are among 37 teams competing this weekend at the EQT Three Rivers Regatta. From left, is Chad Foster, Nick Bertani, Rina Zhang, Paul Gatto and Theo Schwarz.

How to cheer the Roc-ettes on

What: The Red Bull Flugtag (admission is free)

Where: EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta. Red Bull says the best places to enter the event are on North Shore Drive near Gate A of Heinz Field, the Art Rooney Avenue intersection or Chuck Noll Way intersection.

When: Saturday, Aug. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. An open hangar event located at Art Rooney Avenue across from the flight deck opens at 10 a.m.

A team of Pitt engineers will put their know-how — and nascent dance skills — on display for thousands of spectators this Saturday at the Red Bull Flugtag.

The event kicks off at 10 a.m. on the North Shore as part of the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta.

Flugtag (pronounced FLOOG-TOG) translates to “flying day” in German and is a chance for aspiring aviators to put their skills and humor to the test. Teams participating in the Flugtag will be graded on three things: flight distance, craft creativity and showmanship.

Ryan Blair, a 2017 mechanical engineering alumnus of the Swanson School of Engineering, said the Pitt team has dubbed itself the Roc-ettes — a play on the Panther mascot’s nickname and the Rockettes, the popular high-kicking precision dance ensemble.

“We started watching YouTube videos of Flugtag competitions and wanted to capture the showmanship. We thought, what’s Pitt related?” Blair said.  

The team considered the Cathedral of Learning or Benedum Hall for inspiration, but then went to athletics and landed on Roc. As for the –ette? “For our introduction video that we made, we did a little bit of the kicking and line dancing,” Blair said. The Roc-ettes are Blair and Pitt engineering students Rina Zhang, Nicholas Bertani, Chad Foster, Paul Gatto, Theo Schwarz and Mason Lazarcheff.

They’ll be competing among 37 teams, including others with Pittsburgh-inspired names such as Mr. Rogers’ Friendly Skies and Peng-Wings, a “Stanley Cup-powered” craft.

The Roc-ettes will push their homemade flying machine off a 22-foot-high flight deck without the help of engines or external power sources, which are not allowed in the competition. One pilot must remain in the craft as it sails off the edge over the Allegheny River.

“We used principles, basic engineering aspects — simplifying design, making sure it’s safe, and finding suppliers and vendors — that’s everything we learned in school, and we’re applying that,” Blair said.

Pitt Aero, a student group for engineers interested in aerospace, was instrumental in the team’s ability to enter the competition. The group focuses on research, design and manufacturing of radio-controlled planes, in order to compete in events such as the Society of Automotive Engineers annual aerospace competition, Blair said. Pitt Aero also builds smaller unmanned, 100-inch wingspan planes for the society's heavy-lift competition, mainly using balsa and aluminum.

For the Red Bull Flugtag, however, the team had to go a little bigger than 100 inches.

“It turns out it’s a hugely different problem to design a 24-foot wing to carry a whole person and aim for distance,” said Schwarz, a senior mechanical engineering student. “On the engineering side, it meant learning a lot from scratch.”

Creating the craft

Blair gave a technical rundown of what the team went through to come up with its craft.

“We start off by estimating our takeoff velocity and weight, then idealize a free body diagram applying expected drag and lift forces to see how the plane would fly,” Blair said.

“Next, we optimize the plane to increase stability and lift and reduce drag,” he said. “While doing this, we design for manufacturability and transportation.”

“We’re not just winging it,” Blair said. “We’re actually going through the engineering calculations.”

“The Swanson School has been great in helping with resources in terms of equipment, vendors to order from and professors to help when we had questions,” he continued. “They’ve been very supportive.”

Schwarz said that while a mechanical engineering degree is a great background, the specifics of designing this craft were brand new to the team.

“That’s why I’m doing it. This is a chance for me to prove if I have what it takes to design an aircraft — if all the research and engineering background is enough to make a product that works,” Schwarz said. “And we’ll find out on Saturday."

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