The Birdman

The Birdman of Lake Burley Griffin
 Bronwyn Barnett

Every March from 1985 to 1992 thousands flocked to the shores of Lake Burley Griffin to witness one of the more spectacular events on the Canberra Festival program, the Capital 7 Birdman Rally.

Capital 7 put on the event after Canberra Festival organisers approached the television station looking for something that would appeal to families. Once a Birdman Rally was decided upon a survey of the lake was done with the most suitable site found to be in front of Regatta Point.

Canberra’s first Birdman Rally was held on Sunday 17 March 1985 and attracted 26 competitors. Prize money of $10,000 was on offer for the first entrant to fly 50 metres.

By 1987 the number of entrants had reached 39. On a beautiful, sunny autumn day the estimated 100,000-plus spectators cheered on the brave, innovative or just plain mad birdmen and birdwomen leaping off the 10m-high platform in the hope of flying 50 metres and collecting the $10,000. Whether gliding gracefully or nose-diving straight into the water, contestants were assisted back to shore by members of the ACT Water Police, who used the occasion as a training exercise for their divers.

Along with the planning of the actual event, Capital 7 production and engineering teams also organised the outside broadcast so that each Birdman Rally could be recorded, edited to a one hour program and broadcast.

This excerpt is the first segment of the one hour highlights program broadcast on Capital 7 at 4pm on Sunday 12 April 1987

Courtesy of Southern Cross Austereo NFSA title: 568651

The Rally attracted all kinds of entrants. Some went in it for a lark with no other expectation other than the certainty they would end up in the lake (indeed part of the problem for organisers was keeping contestants who’d sought a little Dutch courage at the Food and Wine Frolic from competing drunk). Others however, were much more serious and worked toward building a craft that would get them across the 50 metre line. One of the latter was George Reekie, who with his father Colin, built several craft and entered them in not only in Canberra but other rallies including Melbourne and Albury.

Whilst the crowds loved the novelty entries, they got right behind the ones like George, who actually took flight.

The crowd cheers on George, willing him to make the distance in the 1987 Birdman Rally

Courtesy of Southern Cross Austereo NFSA title: 568651

Although he didn’t reach the 50 metre line on this occasion, in 1991 he finally achieved what he’d aimed for in every Canberra Birdman Rally since 1985. He flew the 50 metres and won $20,000, although it was not without drama. Whilst the organisers looked at the video replay to determine whether the wing of Reekie’s craft had touched the water before reaching the 50 metre mark, the Birdman was comforting a young girl who had been knocked into the water by his craft.

Whilst the Birdman Rally had proven to be a highly successful event for Capital 7, costs were becoming prohibitive, particularly with regard to public liability and prize insurance. 1992 would be the last year the station held the event.

Through the NFSA’s video preservation program, the feats of these birdmen and birdwomen will live on in perpetuity.