Louie St. George: It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a ... flying platypus?

Like most college students, Nikoli Wiens will be inundated with questions of how he spent his summer when he returns to Michigan Technological University next month.

Red Bull Flugtag Fun
Marshall School grad Nikoli Wiens will participate in this year's Red Bull Flugtag at Harriet Island in the Twin Cities with his team, the Platypi Pushers. It will be the first time our state has hosted the event; here is an image from a recent Flugtag in Miami. Image courtesy Chris Tedesco/Red Bull photofiles

Like most college students, Nikoli Wiens will be inundated with questions of how he spent his summer when he returns to Michigan Technological University next month.

Wiens could have some fun with that.

Consider: The 19-year-old Duluthian has busied himself trying to make a 200-pound platypus egg fly, while hatching into a helicopter 30 feet above the Mississippi River in front of thousands of curious onlookers.

Say what?

Wiens and four Michigan Tech classmates are preparing for the Red Bull Flugtag being held Saturday, July 24, at Harriet Island in the Twin Cities.


Wiens will pilot the homemade craft as his teammates, after completing a short skit, push it off a 30-foot platform in a competition that is judged on three criteria: flight distance, creativity and presentation.

Red Bull, the ultra-popular energy drink, has been hosting Flugtag ("flying day") competitions since 1991. Twenty years later, thrill-seeking participants continue to devise new ways to fall 30 feet into water. Flying is the goal -- the record for flight distance is an impressive 195 feet, set in 2000 -- but bulky, human-powered machines with wacky themes don't fare well against gravity.

If nothing else, Wiens' team, the Platypi Pushers, should gobble up points for creativity.

When they started scheming, they became fixated on the idea of having an animal's egg hatch into a helicopter, which will hopefully fly -- "hopefully" being the key word. They settled on a platypus, the disfigured and disheveled mammal that features a sort of duck bill in front and beaver tail in back.

"We finally just came up with platypus because those are like the weirdest animals out there," said Wiens, a 2009 Marshall graduate.

A sketch of the flying platypus hints at the hilarity of the group's undertaking. It starts as an egg shell on wheels, and as it's pushed along the platform by Wiens' four teammates, the shell opens, with part of it morphing into helicopter blades.

Wiens will be inside the machine furiously cranking the rotor blades, trying to generate enough whip to keep the craft airborne for as long as possible.

And how long might that be?


"We haven't actually crunched the numbers, but we're sort of just expecting it to kind of fall off the edge," Wiens deadpanned. He added that the team would be happy with a 15- to 20-foot flight.

Comprised of PVC pipes, chicken wire, paper-mâché and bed sheets on the outside, the machine will be about 12 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, with a wingspan of roughly 15 feet. The Platypi Pushers are one of 37 teams, and they'll convene at teammate Peter Garfield's home in North Oaks next week for last-minute preparations. Wiens said the core structure is firmly built; all that remains is adding the egg shell and making it look like a platypus.

And, really, how difficult can that be?

"Being engineers, we love hands-on stuff, we love building things," Garfield told the News Tribune last week. "It was a great opportunity to build something cool and have fun."

Wiens and Garfield were the ones to latch onto the idea of competing in a Flugtag competition. That was in mid-April, and realizing there was a summer stop in the Twin Cities, the wheels started spinning.

After they convinced three classmates, Matt Wong of Mahtomedi and Pat Whitehead and Tim Richmond of Michigan, to sign on, the next step was to submit an application. Despite the odds-- theirs was one of more than 500 applications -- their bid was successful.

Wiens was notified in early May that his team had made the cut. After fielding the congratulatory call from an official with Red Bull Flugtag, he immediately dialed his teammates.

"I was just like, 'Whoo!' -- just super excited," the software engineering major said. "I called the other guys and was just like, 'We're flying, baby!' I was so excited."


And so began Wiens' summer of making a platypus egg turn into a helicopter and fly off a ledge above the Mississippi River.

Duluth sportswriter Louie St. George last wrote about the 35th anniversary of Grandma's Marathon for the Duluth Budgeteer News. He can be reached via .

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