Wright-Patt Airmen, civilians break world record

  • Published
  • By Matthew Fink
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – On a frigid evening earlier this year, while most Wright-Patterson Air Force Base personnel had gone home for a warm weekend with their families, eight Airmen and civilian volunteers gathered in a semicircle around 1st Lt. Justin O’Brien in a gymnasium at the base’s USO Center.

Directly behind O’Brien was a large sheet of black paper with a meticulously detailed diagram and the words “Guinness World Record Attempt” scrawled in silver marker. Near the gym’s entrance sat a table laden with the evening’s tools: glue guns, popsicle sticks and hot glue.

We wanted an idea that would bring the family together. We started brainstorming to find something that was achievable, and Sauls came up with this.

Over the course of the next eight-and-a-half hours, all were used to build a 27-foot tower that would become the world’s tallest structure made of popsicle sticks. The Jan. 13 feat was officially confirmed by Guinness World Records in April.    

While the group’s primary mission was making history, this was also a reunion of sorts. In addition to O’Brien, six of the eight other volunteers were current or former 88th Security Forces Squadron members at Wright-Patterson AFB: Senior Master Sgt. Ray Cantrell, Staff Sgt. Miguel Ramos, Staff Sgt. Andrew M. Hill, Senior Airman Paiden Carlisle, Jasmine Defore and Joshua Sauls.

O’Brien said he and Sauls, who was a senior airman at the time, got the idea to break a world record in late 2022 after they watched a YouTube video of a man setting the mark for most balloons burst simultaneously by arrows (10, in case you are curious). While entertaining, the video also proved that obtaining a world record wasn’t just for mathematical geniuses or Olympic athletes.

Because Sauls had separated from the Air Force and O’Brien was about to move duty stations, they both felt this would be a perfect way to say farewell to the friends they made in the squadron.

“We wanted an idea that would bring the family together,” O’Brien said. “We started brainstorming to find something that was achievable, and Sauls came up with this.”

Setting the mark, building a team

After settling on a record they wanted to break, O’Brien and Sauls knew they would need a space big enough to hold their structure, which was 25 feet tall in their initial sketches. They contacted the base’s USO and asked for help.

“(O’Brien and Sauls) were looking for a place to host, and the USO is always totally on board for something that is going to support our service members,” said Gina Franz, the center’s operations and programs manager who also served as an impartial observer to the record attempt. “We have the space, so of course we said yes!”

Next, O’Brien and Sauls invited some of their closest friends and co-workers from the squadron, listed above. The last two participants rounding out the team were Cantrell’s 10-year-old son, A.J., and Carol Blankenship, a USO volunteer.

“I heard about it the night before,” Blankenship said. “There was an email saying there would be lots of food and popsicle sticks, so I said ‘OK.’ I didn’t even know about the free pizza!”

The structure itself was conceived in two parts: a base made up of three, right-angled triangles measuring 6 feet tall, which would then support a 19-foot spike, forming a point at the top. For the actual construction, O’Brien created three teams that each worked on different parts of the build. The bulk of the work involved making the same shapes out of sticks and glue over and over again. 

Shortly after they started around 5 p.m., O’Brien said it became painfully clear just how challenging of a task lay ahead of them.   

“We realized that this was going to take significantly longer than expected,” he added. “We knew that if we were to finish, we would be working all night and into the morning.” 

‘Something I will never forget’

Despite this knowledge, energy in the room was surprisingly positive and cheerful. As evening turned to night, O’Brien said he felt the project was bringing out the best traits in everyone.   

“Sauls and Carlisle made it their mission to keep the mood up and to keep everyone smiling,” he said. “Meanwhile, Blankenship and Ramos constantly checked the progress of the build to ensure that the final assembly would be flawless. Nobody complained as the hours of burnt fingers and sore necks and backs ticked by.

“Seeing everyone work together so seamlessly was indescribable and something I will never forget.” 

A little after midnight, the base and structure’s spire had been made and were ready to be put together. However, there was one last problem: Despite their meticulous planning, O’Brien and Sauls realized the ceiling in the USO was too low.

Their only option was to move the structure outside, in pieces, and assemble it from there.

First, they brought the three triangles outside and glued them together, making up the base. Next, they carefully squeezed the spire, which was now 21 feet tall, through the doors and placed it on top of the base with the aid of ladders. Since there was no more natural light, the team set up floodlights to illuminate the fruits of their labor, which now stood over four times as tall as the average human being. 

Now, for the moment of truth. As with any world-record attempt, there must be tangible proof of the achievement.

Steven McKee, a firefighter assigned to the 788th Civil Engineer Squadron who volunteered as official surveyor, laid flat at the base and pointed a laser distance measurer at a specially constructed piece hanging perpendicular to the top of the structure. After several attempts, the measurer gave a reading: 8.23 meters, or exactly 27 feet.

They had done it. In all, it took exactly 2,738 popsicle sticks and 46 sticks of glue to build a piece of world history. 

After submitting the package, which consisted of photo-and-video evidence, sworn statements from three impartial observers and a complete time-lapse of the event, it took over three months to get word from Guinness they had officially gotten the record.

Unfortunately, because O’Brien and other team members have since relocated to various parts of the world, they were unable to hold a ceremony. Instead, he purchased a certificate that will hang in the USO to mark their achievement. 

Despite no official recognition, Sauls said being together with his friends one last time means more to him than any certificates or outside attention ever could.     

“Getting out was a rough transition, honestly,” he said. “It was hard getting used to, but this was a way to stay connected to the Airmen I worked with when I was in. Honestly, even if we didn’t get it, I wouldn’t really care. It was about coming together with everyone for me.”