It’s a hot, sunny day in August 2015, and the city of Portland, Oregon plays host to the annual Red Bull Flugtag competition. Red Bull organizes Flugtag—German for “flight day”—each summer, pitting some thirty teams against one another to see whose homemade aircraft will fly farthest off a thirty-foot-tall ramp and over (then into) a body of water. With much of the competition already underway, a team of MIT aerospace engineers—the “Monkey Ballers”—are prepared to launch. But suddenly, the Coast Guard cuts the competition short due to overcrowding on Portland’s Willamette River, leaving Monkey Ballers unable to compete.
Until this year.
Initially, the disappointment in Portland left the team unsure of what to do next. But ultimately, they knew they had to try again. “It was just so disappointing,” said team captain Billy Thalheimer ’14 SM’16. “We knew that we had to fly, because we put all this time and effort into it.” Given the sudden cancellation, Monkey Ballers were guaranteed entry in 2016’s event, wherever it may be. Then Boston was announced as the host city. The Charles River was Monkey Ballers’ home turf, and Thalheimer, along with 2015 teammate Hayden Cornwell ’15 SM’17, began planning for their much-delayed launch.
They recruited two more AeroAstro students—Mike Klinker ’14 SM’16 and Alex Feldstein ’15 SM’17—and electrical engineer Mike Tomovich SM’14. Home-field advantage included building their craft in Neumann Hangar in the back of Building 33. More importantly, it gave them a huge communications boost. AeroAstro Director of Communications William Litant opened up a vast network of opportunities for the team to gain media exposure and a fan base leading up to Flugtag Boston. With Litant’s help, Monkey Ballers’ story spread around AeroAstro. By word of mouth and the help of some posters placed around Building 33, the story of Monkey Ballers’ quest spread to alumni, current students, and even prospective students on campus tours.
Meanwhile, the team gained a solid following on their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, using the platforms to keep fans connected to their progress throughout the building stages. “We were constantly sending out pictures and videos so that people could really feel like they were involved in the whole build process,” explained Thalheimer. To most people, the idea of building a functional aircraft seems daunting and complex. Not to aeronautical engineers. “It’s true; the sum of the parts is complicated,” said Thalheimer, “but the individual phases of it are really not that complicated.” Through regular social media updates, Monkey Ballers showed viewers their steps in cutting materials, assembling the plane’s structure, and adding finishing touches. “It’s something that anyone can do…you just need to lay out the steps, and it’s a tackle-able problem.”
But the team needed more than just a fan base. Building a functional glider costs money. Using Crowdfund MIT, the team raised about $10,000 to support the project, thanks to local companies, family, friends, and in large part, MIT alumni. Using a design inspired by MIT’s own Daedalus aircraft—the world-record holder for longest human-powered flight—Monkey Ballers began a months-long process to build an airplane that could win Flugtag Boston.
With their MIT pedigree, the team emerged as a favorite to win the event among Flugtag fanatics. Held annually since 1991, Red Bull Flugtag attracts mainly amateur aeronautic thrill-seekers chasing a lot of fun and (perhaps) a little glory. “There are people who participate…who are basically making a parade float and don’t really expect that [it’s] going to fly,” explained Litant. But Monkey Ballers set out to do something different. “We were designing the plane to fly,” said Thalheimer, “and any thematic elements came as an afterthought…It was an engineering effort to build the plane. It wasn’t what would look cool.”
Regardless, their streamlined, bright yellow aircraft looked impressive on the ramp. So on the morning of August 20, thousands gathered along the Charles River to watch the spectacle. Seventh in the lineup, Monkey Ballers—dressed in matching banana costumes—were set to take off just twenty-five minutes after the opening ceremonies. It’s customary for Flugtag participants to do a choreographed dance before takeoff, and with their performance complete, Monkey Ballers were ready for takeoff. The launch itself was simple: “It’s just four guys pushing a cart,” remarked Thalheimer, “and the airplane is flown by the craziest fifth guy,” who in this instance was Feldstein.
After the other four members gave the cart a running start on the thirty-foot-high ramp, the plane took flight with Feldstein inside. It gained lift and elevation—something few other craft accomplished that day—before promptly nosediving into the water. Spectators cheered loudly, but Monkey Ballers knew instantly that something had gone very wrong. This was a plane designed to blow away the competition, not plummet into the Charles after just twenty feet.
Disheartened, the team pulled the plane and an injured Feldstein, whose wrist fractured in the crash, out of the river. Upon investigation, they determined that the failure was not caused by the design they had spent months perfecting, but by a broken elevator control. Later, the team would reflect on the lack of failure-testing to detect potential issues with the control lines. They were so focused on getting the lightweight plane off the ground that, according to Thalheimer, they simply didn’t build enough redundancy into the craft. “We wanted to say ‘Okay, it works now, don’t touch it, don’t break it,’ when our ideology should have been, ‘Hey, let’s try to break it, so that it doesn’t break when we’re performing in front of tens of thousands of people.’”
The loss still stings for the team. “Part of us was dealing with the guilt of injuring our pilot,” reflected Thalheimer. “Part of it was that we had been promising the win and it was thoroughly embarrassing…and part of it was just kind of shame in ourselves [because] we all take pride in our craft, and being proficient aerospace engineers.” But part of the aerospace engineering process is, historically and inevitably, failure. “That’s just the nature of the beast, of being in aerospace,” Thalheimer said. “This isn’t the first time we’re going to fail. We’re going to fail again, but it’s aerospace and that’s how it happens.”
Presently, Monkey Ballers have no plans to enter next year’s Flugtag, wherever it may be. But they haven’t ruled it out either. They may offer to mentor another team of MIT students, should one be formed. Results aside, Litant believes the students still succeeded in a big way. “The idea that they tried to really develop something…to both have a fun experience, but also to [have] some real technology involved, will hopefully encourage other people to do the same kind of thing—have fun with it, but also learn from it. It doesn’t get better than that.”
“We know that we put our everything into this project,” Thalheimer said. “We know that we’ll put our everything into the next project, and use everything we learned from this to hopefully succeed next time. And that will be really sweet when we do.”
Words by Isabella Dionne, video by Stephanie Tran.
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