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Latvia's Aerodium brings 'body flying' to Expo

By Matt Hodges (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-18 09:35
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"It felt like a dream," said 22-year-old Zhao Jingwen, who like all Shanghai residents was given a free ticket to the Expo by the local government. "The instructor kept telling us that the most important thing is to relax, almost like you are sleeping."

Her boyfriend Zhuang Jun, who won the couple a flight by filling in their names on a touch screen, described it as an adrenaline confidence boost. "We're never going to forget this. Now that I feel safe doing this, I want to try bungee jumping and see what the difference is," he said.

The team of fliers is performing for the first time in China, but its high-flying antics has taken its members around the world.

They served as the main act for the Closing Ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin and promoted Sochi's 2014 Winter Olympics in December in Moscow's Red Square. After the Turin Games, Warner Brothers paid them to zoom about in blue suits and red capes high above an Italian beach to promote the release of Superman Returns.

That was when the business really started to take off. Now the company has six products, using both diesel and electric engines. The strongest, a closed re-circulation tunnel for all-weather use, can generate a wind velocity of 70 meters per second, or 252 km/h.

"We have mobile wind tunnels back in Latvia that we can take all around the world," said Reinis Rutentals, also an instructor. "We used to cart around this huge machine that takes five days to assemble. Now we have smaller ones that only take two hours. They are like Transformers: you just pop open the top and you can fly."

There are three such machines on the roof of the pavilion, allowing the team to perform their aerobatic break dancing above the Expo's canopy on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm. The pavilion stays within the Expo's 20-meter height limit, but the machines' walls add another 8 meters.

"The people love it because it looks like we're hanging off the edge of the building. It looks unnatural. But we can't do big stunts because the air stream is smaller than the surface of our bodies," said Augsdkalns.

"We're basically playing with the wind. It's like turning an umbrella around in a gale," he added, explaining how the fliers are able to perform at breathtaking speeds.

"What changes is the surface of your body and the flow of the air, not your weight. There are lots of tricks to control your speed. When you breathe in, for example, you create a small bubble that lets you go up. If you compile lots of these tricks together, you become very aerodynamic."

While many of the countries participating in the Expo 2010 Shanghai see it as a steppingstone to improving trade and ties with China and its burgeoning market - Brazil being a case in point - Latvia hopes to build a new culture of gravity-defying, family-friendly entertainment in China.

As a branding exercise, it also works excellently. Little is known in Chinese mainland about Latvia, a Baltic minnow of around 2.5 million people that is filled with crumbling castles, pumping discos and remnants of the old Soviet era. Russians account for up to 30 percent of its population.

Action sports are becoming something of a tradition there, a fact highlighted by the country's vast cycling tracks. It was brought to global attention two years ago in Beijing when Latvia's Maris Strombergs breezed his way through to the BMX Track gold medal as the sport made its Olympic debut.

Instead of relying on 3D or 4D cinematic attractions like many pavilions, Latvia joins a select list of countries that score points for designing more interactive experiences to thrill visitors. The list includes Denmark, Canada, with its Cirque du Soleil acrobatic performances, and Switzerland, with its ever-popular chairlift ride over a virtual Alps on its rooftop.

Russia, the Czech Republic and South Korea have also produced interactive and child-friendly exhibits that let kids wander through a fantasy forest, fly over Prague on a model airplane and make kimchi on touch screens.

"Our original plan was to let 200 people inside every day to fly, but we soon found out it is more fun for visitors to watch the experts do their shows rather than see their peers struggling to balance horizontally a few meters off the ground," said Wang.

"Everyone wants to try it, even small kids, and with this technology they can," she added. The flexible age limit means that only toddlers under the age of three or elderly people over 80 cannot fly, as well as pregnant women and people with heart conditions.

If Latvia's, or Aerodium's, plans come to fruition, body flying at your local sports center could become a new trend. It takes longer to master than your average computer game - up to a year to get good - but it's worth it, says Augsdkalns

"All of us have crashed in the training sessions," he said. "But the best part is there's no end to how much you can improve - flying on your back, sitting, turning. It's very addictive."


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