The International Bognor Birdman is a competition for human powered flying machines held each summer in the picturesque seaside resort of Bognor Regis on England’s South Coast. Many fliers take part to raise money for charities, others design complex machines to aim for the distance prizes.
After its inception in 1971 by a gift shop owner in the nearby resort of Selsey, the Birdman Rally, as it was then known, continued successfully until 1975 with initially a £1000 and later a £3000 prize on offer for anyone who could fly 50 yards, (about 46 metres). David Cook came closest to the prize in 1974 with a 44 metre flight in the face of fierce competition from Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and a naked man called John.
In 1976 the organisers were told that they could no longer use the lifeboat pier, and as Selsey had no other available location, the Birdman competition moved to Bognor Regis in 1978. With the move came an increase in the height of the take off platform and therefore the likelihood of someone achieving the prize. Also the event began to grow at this stage into something akin to the huge spectacle it is today with media interest from all around the world.
Through the late 70s and early 80s the plucky British contingent represented by Wonder Woman, The Red Baron and the Apollo Space Programme repeatedly attempted to flout the laws of physics whilst over the Channel a storm was gathering: The German and Swiss teams arrived in 1981.
1983 saw the Swiss take first prize, the arrival of TV crews from the BBC, Canada and the USA, along with the first pantomime link when two brothers jumped as a racehorse!
1984 was a historic year, when jubilant German Harold Zimmer flew 57.8 metres and walked away with £10,000 narrowly ahead of the pope, a flying squirrel and Donald Duck!
Competitors from Germany continued to dominate the serious entries during the eighties, while in the comic section there were sugar plum fairies, Sinclair C5’s and in 1989 an Australian film crew witnessed ski jumper Eddie the Eagle eclipse all his Olympic performances by managing 11 metres before splashdown!
By 1990 the record stood at 71 metres with the Germans taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, beating a 10 metre Concorde, 4 penguins, 4 Ninja Turtles and an inmate from Ford Open Prison – minus his passport! The jackpot distance was now 100 metres, the prize a cool £25,000.
In 1992 the record was smashed again by local lad: Dave Bradshaw with a flight of 89.2 metres.
The highlight of the 2001 event was Dick Chitolie’s surreal giant bug, complete with four training shoes to absorb its impact with the English Channel, the £1000 distance prize going to Ron Freeman, a hang gliding instructor from Northumberland, for the third year running.
Ron continued his dominance in 2002 with a flight of 52.6 metres despite the strong headwinds, which was the undoing of several competitors, and he returned in 2003 with an impressive winning distance of 81.2 metres. Other winners from 2003 included Paul Harland the Black Pegasus and Henry Morris with his Carbon Condor.
Over 30,000 people watched the event in 2003 and many more followed the trials and tribulations of the birdmen through press and media reports around the globe. With the support of Virgin Atlantic the 2003 event raised in excess of £70,000 for worthwhile causes.
In 2004, despite the rain, a skate boarding cow, Dr Who and his Tardis and many more took to the skies. Anva Luc made history by being the first blind competitor and Ron’s 6 year reign came to end, when he was beaten by Tony Hughes who flew an impressive 82.5 metres.
But the fun didn’t stop there….
In 2005 the event saw the return of the sun, Ron Freeman regained his crown with a flight 77.6 metres, with other diverse enties such as Zoë Salmon from Blue Peter taking a ducking.
In 2008 disaster struck! The end of Bognor Regis Pier was removed under health and safety concerns over its stablity. This lead to a last minute cancellation of the Birdman event. The following year Worthing, a seaside town a little to the east of Bognor Regis, offered its aid by hosting the event.
While Worthing enjoyed great success with the event between 2008 and 2015, the competition subsequently returned to its roots in Bognor Regis.
There are a number of such Birdman events worldwide, all inspired by the very first Birdman competition .
I wonder what the Selsey gift shop owner who originally began it all back in the summer of ’71, would make of todays event…