Catapult Competition Chunks Old Punkins

A contingent of engineers and hobbyists has big plans for all those extra pumpkins that didn’t find a home on Halloween. On the first weekend in November, dozens of teams are convening in Bridgeville, Del., for the annual World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’, an event that puts medieval machines like catapults and trebuchets to the test to see how far that can huck a pumpkin.

The so-called “sport” of Punkin’ Chunkin’ challenges teams to design and build machines capable of hurling pumpkins via mechanical means to achieve the furthest distance. There are dozens of events held around the country in the fall, but the World Championship is the oldest (it was started in 1986) and largest competition (last year, there were 72 teams competing and over 20,000 attendees).

A team of engineers at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, led by David Mollenhauer, senior materials engineer at the base, takes the sport pretty seriously. Called Team ETHOS, the crew has been at its quest for six years now, having nabbed first prize in the 2009 Adult Torsion Catapult category of the competition with its Phoenix catapult, which that year pulled off a pumpkin hurl of 2,088 feet.

While other teams are more casual about their machines, sketching designs out on paper or building small-scale models, Mollenhauer’s team puts its engineering prowess to work. The team leverages CAD and CAE to optimize designs for stability and performance and employs knowledge of next-generation composite materials to put a modern spin on these antique machines.