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Just winging it: Local high school graduates work to construct flying pirate ship for competition

Posted: September 20, 2013 6:57 p.m.
Updated: September 20, 2013 6:57 p.m.

From left, Cody Katz, Garrett Holcombe, Ryan Holcombe (on boat), Anthony Goldner and Jon Loch stand in front of the human-powered flying craft named "Shellie Baby" they built for the Red Bull Flugtag competition on Saturday. Signal photo by Dan Watson.

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The gentle twangs of country music float from the radio of a parked car in Canyon Country, interrupted here and there by the clanging of a spray paint can.

A man hunches on the ground, drawing and re-drawing the familiar shape of the skull and crossbones.

Others inspect a large, metal cart, checking to make sure all the sharp edges are safely padded off.

Near all of them is an imposing contraption. A large hull with telltale masts protruding from it. There’s no mistaking it: It’s a boat.

It’s a boat with wings.

For months the five members of the team, friends who graduated from Golden Valley High School, have been planning, designing and constructing the craft — what they describe as a “redneck flying pirate ship.”

On Saturday, they will push it off an embankment in Long Beach as part of the annual Red Bull Flugtag event to build a human-powered flying machine, crossing their fingers that things go well.

Speaking at their work space on Thursday, members of the team said the tremendous undertaking had relatively casual beginnings.

The idea
How exactly does one come up with the idea to build a flying pirate ship?

Even now, months later, those building it aren’t exactly sure.

“You can make a plane or you can make a pirate ship,” said 23-year-old Canyon Country resident Garrett Holcombe, one of the members of the group. “It’s hard to do both.”

One thing they agree on: The credit and the blame for the idea rests with 20-year-old Ryan Holcombe, Garrett’s brother and the youngest member of the group.

“I saw the Flugtag advertised on Facebook and I thought it would be fun,” he explained. “So I drew something up and entered it.”

His drawing is exactly what you’d expect it to be: A large boat, complete with mast, with wings protruding from the sides.

He entered it into the Flugtag contest, one of about 1,000 such entries this year.

“I never thought we’d get selected,” he said.

But the team was. Much to the surprise of the other four members who had not even been aware they were up for consideration.

“Yeah, he didn’t tell us what he was doing,” Garrett Holcombe said. “And it was only later we realized how much work it was going to be,”

As a result, it’s only fair that Ryan Holcombe will be the “pilot” on the maiden voyage of the ship.

“It’s his fault I had to spend so much time, spend so many Saturdays building this thing,” his brother said. “I can’t wait to push him off.”

The name
Originally, no one knew quite what to call the flying pirate ship. But that all changed a few weeks ago when the

Holcombe brothers learned their mother, Shellie, has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The ship was quickly dubbed the “Shellie Baby.” Baby is her maiden name, her sons said.

The name has come with a design motif, as the ship features several telltale painted pink ribbons to show support for those living with, or who have survived, breast cancer.

“We wanted to dedicate it to her and to breast cancer awareness,” Garrett Holcombe said. “This seemed like a good way to get the message out.”

“And because of that, this means more to all of us,” he added, as other members of the crew nodded.

The contest
The first Red Bull Flugtag event was officially held in Vienna in 1992, but made its first appearance stateside in 2002.

This year marks the first “national” Flugtag, with events going on at five cities around the country, including Saturday in Long Beach where the Shellie Baby will make its first and possibly only flight.

While fundamentally the Flugtag is a contest to see who can build the most successful human-powered flying contraption, there are other facets as well.

Creativity is one of the judged aspects, and is the area where the team is the most confident.

“It’s a lot easier to make something that looks good and push it off a cliff then it is to make something that you push off the cliff and it flies,” said 23-year-old team member Anthony Goldner.

Even if it doesn’t fly, team members say the Shellie Baby could join the ranks of the “funny fallers,” crafts that are designed more for style.

Showmanship is also considered. And given the ship, it’s only fitting for the team to plan a pirate-themed skit.

“We knew a pirate ship wasn’t going to be able to fly,” Ryan Holcombe said. “So we went all in on creativity.”

But how well the craft flies is also considered.

Part of the difficulty in that aspect, team members acknowledge, is the fact that they can’t test the Shellie Baby before the big day.

“There’s no prototype here,” said 23-year-old Canyon Country resident Cody Katz. “It’s a push-and-pray.”

The teammates — the two Holcombe brothers, Goldner, Katz and 23-year-old Jon Loch — will be doing both at Long Beach on Saturday during the competition, an experience they said they are all looking forward to.

“There’s a first and a last time for everything,” Katz said.

And after hours of labor and about $1,000 in expenses to finish the Shellie Baby, the team will go up against about 30 others and see what all their hard work has wrought.

“And probably in a few years we’ll look back and say it was worth it,” said Garrett Holcombe to laughs.
On Twitter @LukeMMoney


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