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A brief history of Birdman flight...

Second Bognor Birdman in Aug 1979
Video courtesy of Bognor Resident Tony Barber

After its inception in 1971 at 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 flight 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!

With almost ruthless efficiency and attention to detail, the Germans 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 whose flight of 89.2 metres is still unbeaten, and a Japanese documentary crew witnessed the lunacy of flying donuts, ice cream and vampires.

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 hangliding 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 were the undoing of several competitors, and 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.

Sir Richard Branson in the 2003 Bognor Birdman

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 skateboarding 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 Pier was removed under health and safety conserns over its stablity. This lead to a last minute cancelation of the Birdman event. The following year Worthing, a seaside town a little to the east of Bognor offered its aid by hosting the event.

This year the Birdman is back where is belongs in Bognor Regis, while worthing who enjoyed great success with the event in 2008 and 2009 are also hosting their own Birdman event. There are a number of such Birdman events worldwide, including one in China, all with their roots in Selsey/Bognor which was the very first Birdman. It is great to see this entertainment event bringing fun and laughter the globe over. If you are unable to attend the Orignal Bognor Birdman, we hope you will attend one of the many others near you.

I wonder what that otherwise sane Selsey gift shop owner that concocted the madness that was the Birdman Rally way back in the summer of '71 would make of todays event...

Bognor Regis Observer 14th August 2003...

The first Rally in this area was held in 1971 in Selsey and was organised by the Selsey Branch of RAFA Club when contestants would launch themselves off the walkway leading to the Selsey Lifeboat Station. At this time the birdmen had to attempt to fly a distance of 50 yards with the possibility of winning the first prize of £3,000. The idea was purely a fund raising activity by the local RAFA Club and the idea had come from a local resident - George Abel.

George had been inspired by the various antics of people when trying to gain publicity or like one man who tried to fly across the River Nene. George now lives in Australia and returned in 2002 to see the event again. The event continued annually until in 1975 it ceased due to its success. The increasing crowds each year, poor transportation, and the road system to the area were all creating problems for the Selsey emergency services, so unfortunately the Birdmen did not fly in 1976 or 1977.

Quite independently of these events, in 1978 the Commodore of the Bognor Regis Yacht Club contacted the President of the Bognor Regis Lion Club to ask if the Lions Club could arrange a Fun Event during their Regatta Week, being held in August. The Lions discussed their enquiry and came up with the idea of a Birdman Rally. Negotiations then had to take place as the Birdman Rally idea belonged to RAFA Club and it was agreed that the event would be organised in conjunction with the Bognor Regis RAFA Club. The first Birdman Rally in Bognor Regis was held on 20th August 1978, with a prize of £1,000 for a flight of over 50 metres. After this initial success it was agreed to make the event International and starting in 1979 the prize money be increased to £3,000. The Reveille Newspaper sponsored it with the proceeds being presented locally to purchase a portable heart monitor & heart defibrillator. Over the years the sponsors have changed, but always substantial amounts of money have been raised for the various charities supported by the Lions Club, including Meals on Wheels, a mini bus for handicapped children & many other worthy causes.


Arun District Council Bognor Regis Town Council Bognor Regis Observer