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Pie in the Sky

7/6/2009

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A CORNFIELD EAST OF BRIDGEVILLE, Del. — If you did not know a machine such as the Yankee Siege existed, you would have no reason to believe it would.

The 52,000-pound trebuchet made of steel and red oak traveled here, to the First State, on the bed of a tractor trailer. Its wheels, weighing more than a ton apiece, are cut from an oil drum 10 feet in diameter. Hanging above its base is a swinging counterweight freighted with several tons of railroad track.

When the machine is ready, and that mass drops, the throwing arm — a spike reaching some 60 feet into the air — goes from horizontal to vertical, and the sling fastened to its tip can launch a 250-pound object several hundred feet.

Steve Seigars, the owner of this elegant monstrosity, patterned it after the siege machines armies in the Dark Ages built to hurl boulders against castle walls, safely out of bow-and-arrow range.

But Seigars built this $100,000 catapult expressly for one purpose: to throw pumpkins. In fact, it's capable of pitching an 8- to 10-pound pumpkin nearly a third of a mile.

This raises an obvious question. What in the name of the Headless Horseman possessed him to undertake such a thing?

"As my wife said, 'It's a guy thing,'" Siegars says. "If you're interested in engineering and physics — and every guy thinks he's an engineer — it's a fun thing to do."

Siegars conceived the catapult as a way to advertise his New Hampshire pumpkin patch. Then someone asked him whether he entered it in the contest. Which is how Siegars came to be here, at the World Championships of Punkin' Chunkin', where, on the first weekend in November, as they have for more than 20 years, hundreds of competitors convene in rural Delaware to push the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of pumpkin projectiles. No prize money is at stake, only bragging rights and the satisfaction of watching a heavy thing travel very far very fast.

It's time for a demonstration. Siegars and the rest of his crew crank up a tractor motor, which turns the massive gears on the side of the machine. Slowly, as the counterweight goes up, the arm comes down, and the sling is readied. Then — thwip — the ballast falls, the arm races from horizontal to vertical, and as the entire contraption rocks back and forth on those 2,600-pound wheels, the pumpkin soars into the distance, flying further than Tiger Woods' drives off the tee. The gathered chunkin' enthusiasts roar their approval.

The mechanical efficiency of the contraption, Siegars figures, is a paltry 5.9 percent. "That's horrible," he says. "The only reason we win is scale. We overcome with brute force."

The largest object he's ever fired from the catapult was a 300-pound pumpkin a stranger brought to the farm one day in the back of a pickup. They cranked up the machine, hitched the squash into the saddle, and let 'er rip.

The giant pumpkin soared about 400 feet, or the distance from home plate to the center field wall at Wrigley Field.

"When it hit," Siegars says, "it sounded like a cannon going off."

Bullet with Butterfly Wings

"Let's find out what happens," Ricky Nietubicz says as he fills a 50-year-old air tank with compressed air. "What have we got to lose? This is what practice is for."

The air cannons here are even simpler than the trebuchets. Put the pumpkin in the barrel. Fill the tank with compressed air. Open a valve. Watch the pumpkin soar.

At 140 psi, Nietubicz' pumpkin bursts inside the tube, emerging from the 65-foot barrel of his air cannon looking like the old Atari game "Asteroids." Its shards twirl and tumble against the gunmetal-gray sky; the smaller, finer granules of pumpkin blow backwards onto Nietubicz and his small crew.

In the parlance of the sport, this pumpkin is "pie."

Nietubicz, a recent graduate of the University of Delaware, has been firing pumpkins since he was a kid, coming to some of the earliest punkin' chunkin' events, held at a nearby airfield.

"We outgrew that field when we put a pumpkin through a Mustang in the church parking lot," he says. He started with a catapult, then upgraded to an air cannon, then a bigger air cannon …

"Once you've done it, you can't get away from it," he says. "Everyone just wants to see how far a pumpkin can go."

Further down the row of cannons sits the Ozone Blaster, so named because its owners, brothers 17-year-old Michael Nelson and 12-year-old Josh Nelson, once owned a trebuchet that used as its counterweight old refrigerator drums full of dirt. That machine would launch a pumpkin about 280 feet. A day before, their cannon blasted one 10 times that distance. They're going to try again, but this time, they face stiff headwinds, the moist death-rattle of Hurricane Noel making its final push up the eastern seaboard.

Like Nietubicz' gun, the barrel of this rig is aluminum irrigation tubing, fastened into a nozzle that protrudes from the side of an air tank. Everything on the gun is second-hand, except perhaps the base, which, Josh says, "we built the redneck way."

"At all times of the year, we're looking," Michael says. He's a mechanical engineering student at Delaware Technical Community College. The specs on the gun, he won't discuss. The angle of trajectory, usually ideal at 35 degrees, he says, is also a trade secret in today's high winds. Even the pumpkins are secret — he doesn't want to reveal where he got them or who grows them. It seems a safe bet that they're white — much sturdier than the orange variety, less likely to vaporize right out of the air lock. But that's all he'll say.

"Where we picked 'em up," Josh says, "the guy ran 'em over with a tractor. They didn't crack. Just pushed 'em into the ground."

"It might be the mile pumpkin," Michael says. That would be a vegetable of such density and spheroidal sublimity that a machine could launch it a horizontal mile. The record at the World Championships — virtually at sea level — is a shot of 4,434 feet, by a team called The Second Amendment that wields a gun the size of a construction crane. It's said to be a quarter-million-dollar cannon, supported by generous corporate sponsors. The pumpkin leaves so fast, by the time you hear the explosion of air from the tube, the squash is a speck against the clouds, then a poof of dust and corn cobs somewhere on the horizon.

(Some perspective, briefly. A launch of 4,400 feet is the length of a dozen football fields, goalpost-to-goalpost, or 17 city blocks. An Olympic sprinter could run the distance in about three minutes. It's a long way for an inanimate 8-pound object to remain airborne.)

The Nelson brothers clamber aboard their cannon and fill the tank with air. Josh calls out, "Fire in the …!" but before he can say "hole," the machine fires, kicking the sled backwards and off the trailer into the soil behind them.

The crumbs of an obliterated pumpkin drift backwards like snowflakes in the cold breeze.

Disarm
From beneath an orange hardhat and behind dark sunglasses, Tim McGrath watches his pneumatic cannon, Chunkin' Up, coughing pumpkins into the wind. Every so often, as he talks, someone will push the gauges too high, and pumpkin innards will drift onto him as gauzy slime.

He uses the cannon on his land in Maryland. "We're in the control flight pattern for Dulles," he says. "You have to watch out for what's up there." But distance shooting gets dull before long. More likely, he and his friends will turn the cannon to about 30 psi and shoot it at abandoned RVs or an old school bus, whatever he can scrounge for target practice.

The ammunition changes by season, beginning with cantaloupes in the early summer, watermelons by August and pumpkins in the fall. "Bowling balls are nice," he adds, "but you're getting a little risky." When he tries to explain the appeal of chunkin', he gets as far as, "when you see something go from a solid to a vapor before your eyes …" and then he trails off, as though that thought needs no explanation.

There are other motives for wanting to launch an object. Pittsburgh Steelers fans Bob Passieu and Bob and Susan Korwek built their cannon for the purpose of launching pumpkins, but also outfitted it with a nozzle they hope one day will allow them to blast T-shirts into the upper deck from the 50-yard-line at Heinz Field.

But most are built simply for raw, obscene distance. As the cannons exhale pumpkins with a sound akin to that of a stack of 2x4's crashing against a concrete floor, a round, bearded man named Fat Jimmy, from Dover, Del., holds a plate of coleslaw. He's come from the other end of the field, where he's on a couple of teams employing "human powered" catapults that team members crank not with motors but with bikes. His T-shirt reads, "Warning: I do dumb things," but he, too, marvels at the scale of the cannons.

The problem with them, he says, in a refrain common at the world championships, is that "they're boring as hell — once they fire, you can't see the pumpkin."

Not all the catapults are as impressive — or, for that matter, as reliable — as the Yankee Siege. On the second day of competition, several pumpkins slip out of the slings of trebuchets as they launch. This has happened in years past, and pumpkins have careened into the French fries booth and portable toilets. But this year, one lands on the spectators' side of the wooden snow fence that separates the midway from the competition area, striking a young boy in the head. Paramedics rush in and strap him to a long spine board, though he turns out only to have a concussion, and according to family friends, remembered nothing of the blow itself the next day.

Still, the old-school machines have an undeniable appeal, and Fat Jimmy is rooting for a catapult to outshoot the pneumatic cannons. And there's one, a device called Chucky, that could just do it.

Heavy Metal Machine

Pound for pound and dollar for square foot, Adam Gussen says, Chucky is the baddest catapult on the planet. As one of the designers of the machine, he's biased. But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

It doesn't even look like a catapult, at first glance. It resembles the bow of a miniature schooner, built in a blocky style evocative of Legos. Gussen, his brother Marc, Dan Collins, Scott "Bumpy" Johnson and Adrian Hamill, all from New Jersey, assembled the machine for about $20,000.

"Not one thing on there is for show," says Hamill, a former electrician in the British Navy with the accent to prove it. "We're here to throw (stuff). It doesn't do anything purposeful in life. It just flings (stuff). And everyone likes to fling (stuff)."

Hamill in particular seems to admire the machine. As a torsion catapult, Chucky's power is stored in coils of rope that are cranked in opposite directions on either side of the machine. In the center of the loops rests the end of a 167-pound pole, held steady against the will of the twisted rope. (The principle at work is similar to spinning a pencil in the center of a rubber band held between your thumb and index finger, except it takes a half-dozen guys and a huge lever to crank the rope.)

The potential energy this stores is simply stunning. The tip of the arm, at full-tilt, travels at 100 mph. Hamill points out that the machine has to be bolted to the ground to keep from breaking apart, and that the 1/8-inch steel plates holding the cranks on the side are warping inward. If not for these safeguards, he says, pulling the lever on Chucky would be suicidal.

"It would implode," he says. "A wormhole would open in space, and everyone for a mile around would disappear."

On the first day of competition, the catapult fired a shot more than 3,000 feet — a preposterous distance that was later disqualified because the pumpkin split apart not at the point of departure, but hundreds and hundreds of feet into its journey. The consensus on the grounds is, that was a first. By the final afternoon, Team Chucky has hearts set on approaching the 3,000-foot barrier, a distance heretofore achieved only by air power.

Before its final competition shot, Chucky's fans gather a respectful distance from the machine, with tension coiled like its ropy guts, but the final shot of 2,095 feet lands on Team Chucky like a ton of pie. There's a groan as the distance is announced; it is merely mind-bending, not mind-blowing. There's nothing left to do but load pumpkins for the free shooting period, and hurl squash after squash through the deepening dusk.

Hamill insists that anyone writing about Chucky must fire it at least once. The motor cranks, that imposing arm strains downward, and Collins slides the deadbolt safety across it as a pale orange pumpkin is dropped into the trench beneath the machine, from which the pumpkin fires.

Collins removes the bolt.

The button for the warning horn is pressed twice — two dire bleats — and the lever is pulled. The arm detonates upward at the speed of disaster, a lightning crack of violence, and the pumpkin is cast into orbit, rising and shrinking against the clouds, then sinking, so far away it seems to be drifting down, as if under water. Somewhere around the middle of next week, it settles to the ground as a meteorite would, no doubt bursting into a billion individual bits of pumpkin upon impact.

It's a helluva thing. Then Adam Gussen, all atwitter, asks the question that explains the "why" of this entire, improbable weekend.

"How did you like it?" he says, grinning. "Did it make you feel powerful?"