Frequent tryers on wing and a dare
Bob Carveth competing in the Birdman Rally in 1988.?
Has anything ever staged in Canberra given spectators more joy than the annual Capital Television Birdman Rally of the 1980s, held in conjunction with the Canberra Festival in March? ''It was one of the best things Canberra ever put on,'' a fanatical contestant in the 1988 and 1989 events, Bob Carveth of Bemboka reminisced to Gang-Gang on Wednesday.
I'd called him out of the blue, I explained, because lots of the criticisms of there not being enough to do in Canberra on Monday's vaunted Canberra Day (there are tales of bored children throwing stones into the lake) are coming with fond memories of the Birdman Rally. ''Can't it be revived?'' people are pleading.
Yes, no one who ever went to a rally has forgotten it. Entrants with their home-made, unpowered flying contraptions took running, shove-assisted leaps off a six-metre lakeside launch platform at Regatta Point and tried to fly off across the lake to win the $20,000 prize for covering 50 metres. Usually, though, as they went over the edge their wings of their creations folded upwards (in Carveth's words ''like someone clapping their hands above their head'') and man and machine fell, like a brick, into the beige depths.
Quite why it ever ended (was 1989 the last?) isn't clear (do any readers know?) because it used to attract Regatta Point throngs of 70,000 souls. As Carveth and I analysed what the attraction had been, he explained there was the excitement of being there at what was always the maiden and test flight of each creation. It was live, unpredictable entertainment at its very best since there was no way, Carveth points out, any contestant could ever take a test flight before the day. Every attempt was a unique event. What if, spectators wondered suspensefully, as each contestant was given powerful shoves along the launch ramp, this one doesn't just fall into the carp-infested waters but actually flies?
Carveth, 72 now, remembers his two Regatta Point tournaments with great clarity. He seems to have been an atypical contestant since, ''fanatical about everything I ever do'', he used knowledge he had from having ''always been around aircraft and home-made aircraft''. A Canberra public servant, he spent ''months and months and months, all done at night'' making his bantamweight entrant.
Most folk, he laughs to recall, ended up making something for the rally ''that was only a brick with a feather attached'' that was always going to ''just plummet straight in'' like a boulder pushed off a cliff.
Crowds gather at the Canberra Festival Birdman Rally. Photo: ACT Heritage Library
But his aircraft, lots of it built in his flat in Lyons but later assembled in a hangar at Cooma, was built with earnest intent. So, for example, he built its wings using special foam ribs, and then covered everything with a fabric that was then ''heat shrunk'' and then ''ironed'' so that it was an extremely tight fit over and around the ribs. His craft had ''double diagonal bracing wires'' and ''aluminium wing spars, treated with caustic soda'' and a zillion other crafty features. He says his biplane paid homage to the Wright Brothers' pioneering flying machines.
But on the rally day, Saturday, March 18, 1988, with every mechanical and structural demand thought of, disaster struck in the form of human error.
Telling the story of it all, Carveth sounds as woebegone as if it all happened yesterday. He had arranged for ''this great big heavy guy'' to be the one to push him from the platform and that guy, poorly co-ordinated and later confessing to a fear of heights that made him afraid to push the plane to the brink, fell or sat down heavily at the last moment, still holding on. The plane went over the edge like an average rally ''brick'', fell about four metres and then, even after this disastrous start it managed, Carveth marvels, to lift and take wing after all.
''It flew gracefully for 16 metres,'' he enthuses. He's sure that but for his unfortunate choice of pusher (''If only I'd just gone and found two well-built people to run it right to the very edge'') the plane would have flown and flown and would have won. As it was, it was placed third.
But to this day Carveth feels robbed, conspired against by fate. His plane should have won. It's always been the way for him, he laughs ruefully. ''If it was raining gravy I'd be the man who only had a fork.''
He tried again in 1989 but this time, gilding the lily a bit by adding some refinements and gadgets to the probably perfect machine of 1988, ''we crashed and burned''.
One competitor who did better than him in 1989, somehow exemplifying the whole spirit of the rally, was a birdwoman, 14-year old Kim Hare (where is she now?) representing Wanniassa High School in a craft made of aluminium, foam and Gladwrap. Had there been a prize for gracefulnesss, she would surely have won it because she made what a reporter described as ''a graceful swoop to the water and an equally graceful landing, which saw Kim stand up on her intact craft and step daintily onto her rescue craft. Her effort - a distance of 13 metres - brought plenty of cheers.''
Of course, the Bert Hinkler of the rallies was George Reekie of Bathurst. He entered the contest perhaps a dozen times and dominated it from 1985 to 1989. He is in America now, but we are pursuing him and we hope, soon, to bring you his rally reminiscences.
Meanwhile, we'd love to hear from anyone who took part. Do any of you even have the plucky ''brick with a feather attached'' in which you flew or failed in those golden days of blessed memory?