Leftfield: Nosediving off the dock of the bay

Man-powered flight means a dip in the Liffy for most who try it out
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When a Finnish airline pilot named Pete Karivallo turned up at Helsinki airport last weekend to meet some mates, he thought he was being taken on a stag night to Stockholm. Twenty-four hours later he ended up crashing a plane into Dublin dock, but suffice to say it was not as horrendous as it sounds. A bit of an Irish joke, actually which, like the aircraft, went down well.

The 32-year-old bridegroom-to-be had been duped by his friends into becoming the sole foreign entry in an event called Flugtag, where men take to the air, albeit briefly, in or on home-made contraptions with wings, attempting to defy gravity before inevitably making a splash. The object is to propel yourself off a six-metre- high ramp and fly as far as you can without engines, batteries or even an elastic band, gravity and muscle power being the only energy sources allowed. Strictly for the birdmen.

Once hijacked to Dublin, Pete helped his pals raid the local DIY stores, commandeer a supermarket trolley and assemble a makeshift flying machine emblazoned with the rising sun of Japan which looked as if it had been left in the props room of Pearl Harbor. They called it the "De Harriland Comet" and the Flying Finn duly did his kamikaze bit, hurtling into that dark corner of the Irish sea where the Liffy meets the harbour after a couple seconds. He had been airborne for just 5.5 metres. Before going off to enjoy a stag-night Guinness or two he said it had been a lot of fun, and "a bit different".

Indeed it was. Forty-two such entries, all Irish-based apart from the Finns, had braved a grey and chilly day with barely a breath of wind to lift them up, up and away in winged objects composed, among other things, of wheelie bins, soap boxes, cycle frames, bits of carpet, curtains, plastic, aluminium, sticky tape and staples. Lots of staples.

Minutes before take-off for Red Bull Flugtag 2001 the staplers were still cracking away in the narrow streets behind the dock that had been turned into a temporary pit lane. There was one craft shaped like a coffin, designed by a retired undertaker from Cork, and another which resembled a builder's bum called The Flying Pants. There was Pegasus ("a wing and a prayer"), Rocket Man from Wexford, who catapulted himself from an ejector seat, and a Concorde-nosed entry rejoicing in the title Cupid's Stuntman. Plus Methane Man, powered by, er, natural gas.

All a bit iffy on the Liffy, but as the Irish said, they were there for the craic as much as the competition. "It's the sheer lunacity of it all," said one man dressed as a frog from a team called the Recyclopaths before his wings collapsed as he hopped off into the water. But at least he flew further than the Red Rooster, which plunged seawards after a couple of metres.

Flugtag began in Austria nine years ago (it means "fly day" in German), but in Dublin the fly boys hardly got off to a flying start, most entrants nosediving into the ink-black waters to be fished out by a patrolling team of scuba divers.

Sport? Perhaps not, but good sports these batty birdmen certainly were in an orgy of wits, wings and wackiness which raised some fair sums for charity. We were reminded of the Irish journalist who once wrote of his nation's Olympic swimming efforts: "The Irish had a good day in the pool today. No one drowned."

Well, no one drowned in Dublin dock, either, though it was a good day for duckings, and certainly one to beware of low- flying aircraft. Some teams approached the flight path more seriously (and decidedly more soberly) than others, claiming they had even gone into sprint training because of the need for a fast push start, bobsleigh fashion.

"Jeez, Holy Mother of Divinity," exclaimed Doug, the orange-suited and worryingly frenetic MC as the first of the many soared upwards then immediately downwards. After the six-hour session a corner of Georges Dock was littered with the bobbing debris of broken wings and broken dreams.

No one defied gravity for very long, though in Japan, where it really is considered a sport, it is claimed someone strapped wings to his back and flew for 23km from a 10m-high take-off point. The actual Flugtag world record is 64 metres, set in Vienna in 1998. Last year in Barcelona someone flew almost half that distance in a hanglider-like device, but Dublin's best was 14.1m ("an Irish record") by Cork's Emeleyn Heaps in a rather conventional-looking craft with a 30ft wingspan. It was the first time he had flown in a plane of any description. But distance wasn't everything.

Those of us roped in to judge – I took my turn alongside a bloke from Boyzone, a hypnotist, a member of the Green Party and the hunky "Mr Ireland" ("The title's great for pulling the chicks") – were required to mark out of six for artistic impression (ie entertainment value) as well as technique and design. To that was added a reading from an audience clapometer (and a good 5,000 or more lined the dock throughout the day) and half a point for each metre "flown".

Flying highest at the end were the defending champions, a six-person squad from Dublin named the Propellor Heads, whose plane "Boeing, Boeing, Bong" glided 13.4m before dunking its designer-pilot, a 45-year-old computer consultant named Sean Malone, into the briny. "I didn't feel the water at all," he said. "I was too keyed up." The ultra-light glider, hand-made with an aluminium frame and wings covered in a lightweight fabric ferried from Devon called Ceconite, took two months to build and cost £1,000. "Although it was a fun event we took it seriously," said Malone. "We were disappointed, because though we improved our distance on last year with a bit of wind speed we could have gone 30 or 40 metres."

The winners donated part of their £3,500 prize money for real flying lessons to a young Irishman with cystic fibrosis. Another team raised £8,000 for a children's charity. Second prize was a flight in a B52 bomber, and third a tandem parachute jump.

They'll be flying again, or trying too, later this summer in San Francisco, where there are supposed to be sharks in the harbour. Flugtag may be fun, but plane sailing it isn't.