Windows Phoenix Flies for Brief Moment at Flugtag

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Aug. 24, 2010 – For a split second, Ali Driesman soared through the air on Windows-colored wings.

The Windows Phoenix begins its approximately 20-foot flight during Red Bull’s Flugtag competition in Long Beach, Calif., on Aug. 21, 2010.

Then with a sudden dive she splash landed in Long Beach, Calif.’s Rainbow Harbor right on top of her craft, a homemade flying machine with a 28-foot wingspan and a Microsoft Windows color scheme. Surfacing next to her – and to the applause of 105,000 people gathered for Red Bull’s Flugtag competition – was a bruised Ben Rudolph, who had helped push her and the glider off a three-story high flight deck at the pier’s edge and slammed his mouth into a wing.

Despite the pain, he was all (bloody) smiles.

“That was an epic crash,” said Rudolph, senior public relations manager for Windows, after the flight. “The Phoenix looked really impressive coming up the launch and on our run-up, though. It really got the crowd going.”

Saturday marked the first – and last – flight of the Windows Phoenix, the brainchild of a group of Windows Business Group employees who entered Red Bull’s Flugtag competition. Flugtag (pronounced floog-tawg), which means “flying day” in German, challenges people to design and build their own flying machines and then pilot them off a 30-foot high flight deck to soar into the air – or, more often than not, to plunge into water. Since 1991, the energy-drink company has hosted dozens of events around the world, and spectators have been entertained by flying contraptions in the shape of everything from tacos to pterodactyls.

In Long Beach, the Windows Project Phoenix team competed against 35 other teams, including 7-11 employees who built a flying Big Gulp and a team from California that launched a giant Barack Obama head. The winners, team Peepin’ It Real, flew their Peep-inspired craft 98 feet, compared to the Phoenix’s 20 or so.

Windows Takes Flight: From left, Windows Project Phoenix team members Ali Driesman, Ryan Asdourian, Lucas Brodzinski, Ben Rudolph, James DeBragga (back), Brian Lysak (front), Mike Arntzen and Jay Paulus.

Although they said it would have been great to break the Flugtag distance record (currently 207 feet), the Windows team really just wanted to have fun and share it with the world, Rudolph said. At the same time, “this is about as Microsoft a project as you could get – you have a bunch of super-smart guys and girls playing with polycarbonate, power tools, and CAD [computer-aided design] programs.”

The idea to enter the competition came in May. Ryan Asdourian, a senior project manager on the Windows team, decided to form a Microsoft Flugtag team and sent out an e-mail to several internal group aliases to gauge interest. After an evening of pizza, beer and energy drinks, the Windows Project Phoenix team numbered eight– three engineers, four “draft horses” who would push the plane off the flight deck, and one pilot with a history of daredevilry.

“I’ll do anything – skydiving, bungee jumping,” said Driesman, student audience marketing manager with Microsoft Education. “This is the next perhaps not logical but awesome step.”

The team spent two months designing and building the Phoenix in their “hangar,” a boathouse outside a coworker’s home on the shores of Lake Sammamish near Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., campus. Under the direction of the project’s lead engineer Brian Lysak, a senior program manager on the Windows Ecosystem Team, the engineering team spent many Red Bull-fuelled late nights studying wing design and construction techniques. After starting with a couple dozen different designs, they settled on what became the Phoenix – a glider that could take off at running speed, said Mike Arntzen, a partner engagement manager on the Windows Ecosystem Team who holds a pilot’s license and served in the Australian Air Force.

Pilot Ali Driesman (center) listens to flight instructions from engineers Mike Arntzen (left) and Brian Lysak in the team’s “hangar,” a co-worker’s boathouse on Lake Sammamish near the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash.

“We’ve taken our best guesses aeronautically,” Arntzen said of the design before Saturday’s flight. “The theory at least is good. We’ll see.”

After iterating on the design through CAD programs and 3D models, the team was finally ready to start building the Phoenix six weeks ago. Lucas Brodzinski, program manager on the Windows Graphics team, remembers the exact moment the team leapt from drawing to reality – when he charged $1,000 worth of materials to his credit card.

Like the other engineers, Brodzinski had never built a plane before. But he had always dreamed of it. “I’ve been into aviation ever since I was a little kid, and I always wanted to a build remote-controlled airplane but never got around to actually doing it,” he said. “I did plenty of research, though, so I was ready.”

The engineers used some common model airplane materials to build the craft. Monokote, a strong, ultra-light heat shrink plastic film that comes in an array of colors, was wrapped over the plane’s frame (made up of old windsurf masts) in the Windows logo color scheme. A typical model airplane would need about one roll of Monokote; the Windows Phoenix required about 20, Lysak said.

The rest of the materials could be found at a Home Depot and a TAP Plastics, with the exception of the carbon fiber used to wrap around the center wing box, Lysak said. The team focused on keeping the craft super-lightweight; when they finally finished the Phoenix, it tipped the scales at 65 pounds, well below the 450 pound limit set by Red Bull.

Six days before the competition, members of the Windows Project Phoenix team expressed confidence as they put the finishing touches on their glider.

“It certainly looks like a plane, which is good enough for me,” Rudolph said, admiring the completed Phoenix.

“I’ll tell you this – it will definitely be in the air for a bit, and it will definitely hit the water. Beyond that, we’ll see,” Brodzinski replied.

He was right. And although it hit the water earlier than the team had hoped, the flight of the Windows Phoenix was a triumph in their eyes.

“Ultimately the flight might not have been a success, but the project was a total blowout success,” Brodzinski said. “We exposed people to the fun side of the Microsoft and Windows brand. Win or lose, we didn’t really care; we had a good time and people had a good time watching and cheering us on.”

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