The birdmen of Er Chung

Seventy of the nation's wackiest wannabe barnstormers are about to strap on their wings and `fly'

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 17

In contrast to the professionally flown and technically advanced military aircraft that wowed the crowds at Taoyuan Airbase two weeks ago, some more basic forms of aviation will be on display this weekend at the inaugural Taiwan Birdman Competition (台灣鳥人大賽).

Taiwan's aeronautical buffs will have to the opportunity to see 70 of the nation's maddest pilots as they attempt to flout gravitational pull in homemade flying machines when the event touches (crashes?) down at the Weifeng canal in Er Chung.

Organized by the Taipei County Government (台北縣政府) and sponsored by the Hontai Life insurance company (宏泰人壽), the Taiwan Birdman Competition is based on the UK's annual International Bognor Birdman competition, at which scores of amateur aviators leap off Bognor Regis pier in an attempt to defy gravity, strapped to wacky homemade flying machines.

First held in 1971 and originally known as the Birdman Rally, the now famous UK event was initially held in the little-known West Sussex seaside town of Selsey. Moving to the nearby "resort" town of Bognor in 1978, the event has since become something of an international spectacle. It attracts media interest from around the world and was watched by a record breaking 30,000 spectators last year.

The competitors have, over the years, been dressed up as everything and everyone from the Pope to a doughnut. They usually fail to fly great distances and the UK record, which was set in 1992 and remains unbeaten, is just 89.2m.

A good-humored charity event, rather than a serious sporting competition, requirements for the UK event still stipulate that competitors eligible for prizes must fly at least 46m. Organizers of the Taiwan Birdman Competition don't expect any of the participants to fly that far and have instead set the minimum distance of 10m, at which competitors are eligible for the chance to take the top prize.

The rather short distance shouldn't distract participants from flying further, however. The pilots of the 70 weird and wonderful flying contraptions who will leap off a specially constructed tower into the Weifeng canal tomorrow are all vying for a prize of NT$190,000, plus an opportunity to take part in next year's International Bognor Birdman competition in the UK. Second and third place in the competition will win cash prizes of NT$100,000 and NT$50,000 respectively.

Not that flying the furthest is the only prize on offer tomorrow. In order to ensure that participants create the most outlandish flying contraptions imaginable, organizers have included an additional 10 categories in which contestants can compete to win prizes. These include the Most Insane Design, the Best Design, the Funniest Design, an award for the best team design and a special award for the Most Popular Design, which will be chosen by the spectators.

Although organizers are keeping tight-lipped in regards as to what oddities spectators can expect to see taking to skies tomorrow, local media outlets have already chosen a favorite. Dubbed "Dangerous Insect" (蟲蟲危機) by its student design team, the winged contrivance has been taken on extensive land trials in recent weeks -- under the gaze of TV cameras -- but it will, along with the 70 other outlandish homemade flying oddities, face the ultimate test tomorrow afternoon when its pilot leaps head-first off a tower and over the Weifeng canal.

Performance notes:

What: Taiwan Birdman Competition (台灣鳥人大賽)

Where: Er Chung Weifeng canal (台北縣二重疏洪道-微風運河)

When: 1pm, Saturday, Aug. 28