Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a ... well, if you’re in Bridgeville, Del., this weekend, it’s probably an 8- to 10-pound pumpkin that’s been launched into the wild blue yonder by a catapult, air cannon or other mechanical contraption.
It’s all part of the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event, Nov. 2–4. With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, it’s also our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.
"It’s the combination of creativity and the oddity of it," said John Huber, president of the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association (WCPCA), of the event’s appeal. "It’s problem-solving, it’s creative thinking, it’s artistic. You look at these machines and you just go, 'wow'."
Those machines include catapults powered by ropes and garage-door springs, high-speed centrifugal launchers and cannons that feature massive tanks of compressed air and barrels stretching 100 feet or more.
Each one is the result of countless hours of research, construction and pre-competition testing. “Everyone who competes has built something from scratch,” said Daniel Collins, part of Team Chucky — which currently holds the world record in the Adult Torsion (rope-powered) Catapult category, with a launch of 3,636.39 feet.
“People spend an inordinate amount of time doing this,” he told NBC News. “It becomes an obsession.”
That obsession is apparently rather widespread. “We have farmers to dentists to chemical engineers,” said Huber, who happens to be a nuclear engineer. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he’s also a competitor, whose team — Team Hypertension — has built a spring-loaded catapult that sits on a 14,000-pound trailer and generates 30,000 pounds of force.
“We've invested $75,000 in this thing and it’s just to throw a pumpkin,” he said.
It all comes together on a field at Royal Farms in Bridgeville, where the competitors — 115 this year, says Huber — set up along a mile-long firing line. Some of the launchers are so big they arrive on flatbed tractor-trailers and have to be assembled on site.
At that point, it’s all about winching ropes, stretching springs, aiming cannon barrels and loading slings, buckets and barrels with the appropriately-plump projectile. Firing one at a time across an open field, the results are tallied by ATV-riding spotters, who presumably manage to avoid the incoming ordnance.
“They measure the point of impact,” said Huber. “Trust me, with these distances, the pumpkins leave a hell of a crater.”
Meanwhile, back behind the firing line — and protected by a high backstop — spectators can cheer on their favorites, enjoy live music and browse booths selling food, crafts and clothing. There’s also a chili cook-off and pageant competitions for ages 4 to 18-plus.
It’s all in good fun, but also for a good cause. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the WCPCA donates a large share of the proceeds from the event to several charities and scholarship programs. With 75,000 to 100,000 spectators over the course of the three-day event, Huber says those donations run to the “hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.”
As for this year’s event, it’s expected to go on despite any after-effects of Hurricane Sandy and with the usual degree of friendly competition. Collins, for example, has set his sights, not on his fellow catapulters, but on the biggest guns in the game: the air cannons, one of which holds the overall world record of 4,483.51 feet.
“They used to laugh at us but last year we beat 44 percent of them,” he said. “Now they’re looking over their shoulders. It’s only a matter of time.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination.Follow him on Twitter.