10 May 2024

Should Canberra's Birdman Rally fly again? NCA doesn't rule it out

| James Coleman
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A competitor taking off in his handmade flying machine for the Birdman Rally.

A competitor taking off in his handmade flying machine for the Birdman Rally. Photo: ArchivesACT.

Over the past couple of years, the National Capital Authority (NCA) has signed off on a number of projects designed to inject life into Canberra’s jewel in the crown, Lake Burley Griffin.

There is now caffeine available every 700 metres along the bridge-to-bridge walk. There will be direct seaplane flights between Rose Bay in Sydney and Moruya on the South Coast in the next few months, and a floating sauna is coming to Yarralumla Beach in time for mid-winter.

Even the iconic paddleboats are coming back ahead of summer, after they were retired last year due to their state of disrepair.

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There’s just one thing missing: the Birdman Rally.

In a recent episode of ‘The Hoot‘, Region’s weekly podcost, co-host David Murtagh described this as Canberra’s coolest event, and rued how the city has never been the same since it stopped.

He’s not alone. Ever watch Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines? It was like that, but in real life.

Inspired by events overseas, and probably a weird thought in the middle of the night, local television station Capital 7 launched The Birdman Rally in 1985 as one of a series of events held across the city during the Canberra Festival every March.

The launching platform was located at Regatta Point. Photo: ArchivesACT.

To enter to win a $10,000 cash prize, all you had to do was construct a homemade flying machine with anything from old beer cartons to fibreglass frames – and then place all your trust in it as you ran and leapt from a six-metre high launching platform at Regatta Point.

It was considered a win if you made it 50 metres though the air before crash-landing in the – at times, two degrees – water of the lake.

The first rally on Sunday, 17 March, attracted 26 competitors, and a crowd in the thousands along the shores. Two years later in 1987, the numbers had grown to 39 competitors and more than 100,000 spectators. The platform was now also 10 metres high.

ACT Water Police would rescue the crashed birdmen. Photo: ArchivesACT.

Most contestants failed, but one pair – George Reekie and his dad Colin – was determined to return each year with a new and improved machine until they finally won the prize in 1991. But it wasn’t without drama.

The umpires weren’t sure if the wing tips of the Reekie craft had touched the water before the 50-metre mark, but by this point the crowd was so impressed, the prize money was eventually handed over.

“I knew we could do it,” a jubilant George reportedly said at the time.

“Conditions weren’t the best, but we had spent 300 hours building it and it paid off.”

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He won a new Nissan Pulsar the following year, which he gifted to his mother. He later used the $20,000 he won in 1991 to move to the US and kickstart a life on Rhode Island as an industrial designer with a wife and two daughters. He died, aged 50, in August 2017.

But 1992 was also the turning point for the rally. A gathering further down from the event, called the Food and Wine Frolic, may have gifted some competitors with a bit of Dutch courage (and anti-freeze for the lake plunge), but it was also just creating fights and mess.

The organisers cited public liability and prize insurance as reasons they could “no longer sustain the high costs of staging the event”. The Canberra Festival itself bowed out shortly afterwards in 1994.

Crowds at the Birdman Rally weren’t always well behaved. Photo: ArchivesACT.

But it wasn’t forgotten. An online petition to the ACT Government in 2017 to bring back the Birdman Rally attracted 432 signatures. And you only have to ask a Canberran over the age of 40 for their favourite Canberra memories, and it pops up time and again.

So why not now?

When asked if the NCA would support a return of the Birdman Rally, a spokesperson told Region the NCA “supports events that showcase Canberra as a wonderful place to live and visit, and a capital for all Australians”.

“The NCA considers events applications in the context of the NCA Event Guidelines, which include an assessment of the organiser’s capacity to stage and manage the proposed event, public safety and stakeholder views.”

So that’s not a no.

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It was good fun yet bawdy and unruly at times.

I think bring it back.

Change the rules such as providing a longer flight deck. All things considered entertaining. What happened to the solar boat race? That was innovative.

I remember that the food and wine frolic was family friendly event for quite a few years.
We went there every year with our growing family. But then one year the music was so loud that talking to the person next to you was no longer possible and the whole event appeared to have turned into a giant piss-up with earsplitting noise.
We left with the kids about after about 20 minutes, never thought of going to the next one and were glad that we didn’t go after hearing about the antisocial behavior of some of the attendees.
The original concept was great and worked well for several years.

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