Birdman Rally contestants taunt gravity and come off second best

The plan was to fly, but gravity had better ideas for would-be aviators in this year’s Moomba Birdman Rally.

There was Santa’s Sleigh, made from recycled cardboard boxes, that split in half after flopping into the Yarra River. And there was a polystyrene Star Wars craft, which momentarily soared before ejecting its pilot.

Rachael Fleming nose dives during the Birdman Rally at Moomba 2023.  Credit:Chris Hopkins

Even Rachael Fleming, an actual pilot-in-training and whose family operates a flight school, plummeted nose first into the river.

“It felt like a belly flop,” the 20-year-old said. “Gravity was definitely working against me.”

A dream to fly – or simply making a big splash in front of crowds – could seem to be why contestants enter the Birdman Rally, which once had daredevils launch from the Princes Bridge before the event moved to a six-metre platform on Birrarung Marr.

In fact, all the contestants this year were there for charitable causes, raising a record $147,600, and several pilots laboured over rudimentary aircraft and outlandish costumes because complex medical conditions affect them or their family.

Geoff Constable takes off during the Birdman Rally after entering to fight Parkinson’s disease. Credit:Chris Hopkins

“I would never ever have done this if I was healthy and never had Parkinson’s,” said Geoff Constable, 66, who entered to raise money to fight the disease.

Constable, who has young-onset of the condition, said exercise helped him delay needing to increase medication. “For me, it was all about … putting yourself out there and showing young people with Parkinson’s they can do something really crazy.”

Michael Duffy entered because his daughter Emma, 11, has a rare neurological condition called Sturge Weber syndrome, and he wanted to pay to upgrade play equipment at her school and help carers attend an overseas conference.

Dressed as a wedged-tailed eagle coined ‘Weber the Wedgie’ and accompanied by family and two friends — dubbed the “wrong brothers” — his glider’s 40 kilograms pulled him into a nose dive.

Daniel Mazzei at his sixth Birdman Rally in 2023.Credit:Chris Hopkins

“The plan was to go forward, but then I went forward and then just kept going down forwards,” he said. “The pilot was carrying a bit of excess baggage and I don’t think gravity was working with him.”

Daniel Mazzei was competing for a sixth year, this time as a Star Wars pilot, and soared the furthest distance of eight metres to raise more than $100,000 for child protection.

“It doesn’t matter what you try; you’re nose diving whether you like it or not,” Mazzei says. “It’s about having fun with the family, making the craft and having fun fundraising and doing it with other crazy people.”

Kelly Buckley from Healsville shows her pet lizards, Black and Shinzon, off at Moomba 2023.Credit:Chris Hopkins

The festival drew large crowds on Sunday, with families and friends lining the river banks to watch the Birdman Rally and waterskiing events. Among them was Kelly Buckley, from Healesville, who was using a harness and leash to walk her two blue-tongue lizards through the festive crowds.

“I just love the company,” Buckley said of the pets, which help her with anxiety and were appreciated by small crowds of children. “I take them everywhere I go.”

Anjali and Santosh Rauniyar with their daughters Zayah and Thea at Moomba 2023.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Nearby, Anjali Rauniyar, originally from Nepal, said she had visited Moomba for the first time with her partner several years ago, and now they were bringing their children to the event.

“It’s so multicultural, it’s the beauty of it,” she said. “It’s nice to bring some craziness back and lighten our moods.”

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