Mission Improbable: Wingin’ it all the way to Austria
UND student Connor Felchle represents U.S. at Red Bull’s Paper Wings world championship
How UND student Connor Felchle turned a Sunday afternoon quest for free Red Bull stuff into a four-day, all-expense-paid trip to Salzburg, Austria, might seem like a bad plot from a sitcom.
“It’s one of those things where I tell people what happened and they don’t believe me at first,” said the senior Aviation Safety and Operations major from Soldotna, Alaska. “Honestly, I wouldn’t believe me either!”
When he ventured into UND’s Fritz Pollard Athletic Center on Feb. 27 to become one of a record 61,000 worldwide participants in Red Bull’s Paper Wings contest, he had no idea that he’d be representing the U.S. by throwing his paper airplane design on a world stage. (Note: See YouTube video blog below.)
Where’s the free stuff?
“To be honest, I didn’t know what the overall prize was,” Felchle admitted. “I knew that there was a trip to Denver to compete in the nationals, but when I got there, I was just trying to get free stuff – like a hat or a T-shirt or a Red Bull drink, which I ended up getting.
“When I saw that there weren’t many people competing, I thought maybe I should try to win and go to Denver,” he added.
That’s when Felchle said the stars began to align for him because he didn’t actually win in either of the two categories in which he was competing: distance and airtime. Garrett Peterson, a junior aviation major from Burnsville, Minn., won both categories, but the contest rules prevented one person from competing in both events.
Therefore, Felchle got a trip to Denver on Red Bull to compete April 10 in the airtime category of the national finals. He finished second by a mere fraction of a second, but fortune intervened once again. The winner of the event had a problem.
“I was happy for him because he won fair and square,” Felchle said. “But it was funny because when word got out that he didn’t have a passport and the championship in Austria was a month away, people would shake his hand, say ‘Congratulations! Good job!’
“And then they’d come over to me and say, ‘Be ready because you’re probably going in his place.’”
A twist of fate
And that’s why Felchle became a member of Team USA. It seemed as though it was all destined to happen. Shortly before the Red Bull event in Denver, Felchle’s mother gave him his passport – not because he expected to go to Austria, but because he was planning a trip to Canada.
“It was just by chance that the day before the competition, I already had my passport,” he said. “The stars aligned for me again.”
Red Bull flew Felchle from Grand Forks to Salzburg for the four-day event, covering all his expenses for the trip. In Salzburg, 150 competitors from more than 60 countries gathered to see who could throw a paper airplane the farthest, keep their plane in the air the longest and discover which design performed the best aerobatics.
Lazar Krstić of Serbia won the distance competition with a throw of 61.11 meters (200.5 feet). Rana Muhammad Usman Saeed of Pakistan had the best airtime throw with a hang time of 16.39 seconds. Seunghoon Lee of South Korea won the aerobatics event. Felchle finished 22nd in the airtime event, which meant he wasn’t eligible to compete in the finals.
“Obviously, I tried my best, but things happen,” he said. “It’s just a paper airplane and you have to get lucky sometimes.
“I didn’t win the competition, but I got a free trip to Austria and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m incredibly grateful.”
Felchle used what little free he had to do some exploring in Salzburg.
“I took a taxi from the competition to the center of the city and I walked around for a couple hours,” he recalled. “I just wanted to see the architecture and the history behind the city because that’s incredible.”
The experience helped Felchle discover a desire to travel and see more of the world.
“Now that I’ve been over there, I want to go back, and I want to bring my family and friends with me to see more,” he said.
With the next Red Bull Paper Wings competition scheduled for 2025, Felchle has been thinking about his approach, should he get the opportunity to compete.
“If I could do it again, I would spend more time in tweaking designs,” he explained. “At every level of this journey, whether it was Grand Forks, Denver or Salzburg, I changed my design. Next time, I’d probably pick one design and try to perfect it.”
There’s one final lesson Felchle shared.
“What this whole experience as taught me is that if you show up, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “When I showed up that Sunday at UND, I lucked my way into a trip to Austria.”