Some men ask for the world; some simply want to catapult cantaloupes 500 feet through the air.
Don Mushet and Don Popish fall in the latter category. They head two teams of Aspen Skiing Co. mechanics who competed earlier this month with mechanics from ski areas around the country to come up with the best catapult.
After working on snowcats all winter, guys and gals gotta do something to break up the monotony. When they meet for the annual conference of the Ski Area Vehicle Maintenance Institute, SAV-MI for short, they get a chance to show their mechanical acumen by designing and building catapults. (They also study technological advances and receive tips on mechanical issues, but the catapult competition is the fun part.)
Mushet is an old pro at the medieval armament competition. His team of mechanics have entered the competition two of the three years and believe they’re getting their design dialed in.
Their original catapult launched a cantaloupe 180 feet, well behind winner Breckenridge’s 400 feet. Buttermilk didn’t enter last year but they refined their design this year and came up with a gnarly looking crossbow design.
The catapult competition takes inspiration from cable television’s Junkyard Wars. The teams can only use materials laying around their shops. They are forbidden from buying anything.
Buttermilk’s crossbow uses gears, cables, springs and shiv wheels from chairlifts for its power train. The cantaloupe – the ammunition of choice – is packed into a sling that is attached by rope to a long, metal arm that protrudes six feet or so above the crossbow frame.
As workers use a long metal bar to turn the gears that wind the cable, the arm lowers against the frame. The tension is released, the arm whips up and hurls the cantaloupe.
“The first shot, the cantaloupe went four feet out then down,” acknowledged Mushet. Another time the melon shot backwards about 200 feet. But, hey, good things come to those who wait.
Building a catapult isn’t as easy as copying the design used in the Middle Ages. The contraptions must be light enough to be moved by teams of five. That means counterweights used in many original designs won’t work.
Mushet’s crew – Ron Pugh, Nadina Green, Christel Freese, Bob Trost and Phil Randale – came close to upsetting the reviled team from Breckenridge, which has won the contest all three years. Breckenridge stuck to its tried-and-true design to send a cantaloupe 450 feet. Buttermilk fell just five feet short.
There is also a competition for accuracy, but distance gets the glory.
Buttermilk did win the “best design” for features on its crossbow that include the Skico’s signature aspen leaf logo.
While Mushet’s crew is made up of the seasoned veterans, Popish’s Snowmass mechanics took a turn for the first time this year. They were challenged by Mushet about two weeks before the competition to come up with a design.
“At the outset we thought 400 feet was no problem,” said Popish. But catapult construction proved to be a humbling experience – even for a crew savvy enough to be responsible for maintenance and repairs on $175,000 snowcats.
“You get confident that you can do anything mechanical, then you find out you can’t,” said Popish.
His team’s prototype was also a crossbow design that had a nasty looking claw extending from the cup that held the ammo. The prototype was scratched for lack of distance.
Back at the drawing board, they used a design with a trigger mechanism influenced by the spring-loaded Daisy BB gun. Springs from snowmobiles were compressed then released to send an arm sailing.
Popish’s team – Mike Hayworth, Max Morath, Bryan McFarlin, Paul Wirth and Chris May – weren’t getting the distance they knew they needed for competition, so they made last-minute refinements like strengthening the arm. Popish wishes they would have used bigger springs as well.
Nevertheless, they made a respectable showing in their first competition.
“We hit 257 feet, which was better than anything we got here,” said Popish. “It was a great experience to come up with something that works. Our goal for next year is at least 500 feet.”
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