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Australias First Powered Flight

We decided to touch on something slightly different today, and reflect on the first powered flight in Australia which officially occurred 112 years ago on the 18th of March, 1910. As it turns out, it seems to be somewhat of a contentious issue, with a number of gentlemen reporting to be the first to fly in Australia.

The push for a flying machine in Australia came from the Australian Government when, on the 8th of September 1909, the Department of Defence offered a 5000 pound prize 'to the inventor or designer of the flying machine which is adjudged by the Minister for Defence to be (subject to certain conditions) the best and most suitable for military purposes'. Unfortunately, the competition lapsed. While there were 45 entries, no one provided an actual flying machine to trial.

The first 'heavier than air' flight in Australia occurred on the 5th of December, 1909 when George A. Taylor flew his motor less aeroplane (glider) that he had designed in Narrabeen, Sydney. Taylor initially made his name as an artist before becoming interested in aviation and radios and experimenting with designing gliders. That same day, Taylor flew his wife Florence followed by Australian philanthropist and businessman Edward Hallstrom.

A few days later, on December 9th 1909, 25 year old Colin Defries reportedly piloted his Wright Model A, the Stella, at the Victoria Park Racecourse in Sydney. Colin Defries was an English racing driver and pilot. Defries was a trained pilot having learnt to fly in Cannes, and his flight time by 1909 standards meant he had sufficient experience to become an instructor. While the Wright aicraft was known to be difficult to fly, it is reported that Defries flew straight and level, in blustery conditions for 1 minute, covering 120 yards at a height of 15 feet before landing. The flight ended when the engine lost power thanks to a faulty spark plug. The Australian Aero League did not officially recognise his flight as he 'did not display the ability to freely manoeuvre the aircraft', and actually questioned whether the flight happened at all. On the 18th of December he made a second attempt where he lost control of the aircraft (apparently trying to retrieve his cap) and crashed into a ditch where it was badly damaged. His mechanic, R.C. Banks, repaired the aircraft and made his own flying attempt on the 1st of March, 1910, but the aircraft crashed again.

The next attempt occurred in South Australia in the early hours of March 17, 1910. F.H Jones, a South Australian businessman, imported a Bleriot monoplane. Fred Custance was a young 19 year old mechanic who was enlisted by Jones to assist in the assembly of the aircraft and, using the manuals that came with the purchase of the aircraft, taught himself to fly. On the morning of the 17th, Custance flew the aircraft at Bolivar, South Australia, and made 3 circuits of a field and flew for 5 minutes and 25 seconds. The aircraft was flown and subsequently crashed later that day. Some reports say that the only onlooker was the Bleriots owner, F.H. Jones, while others say that there were 3 other onlookers. Unfortunately there was no press coverage of the event, and years later, F.H Jones reportedly stated that the whole event was made up, then later claimed that it was indeed he, not Custance, who flew the Bleriot that day. In the end, the first official powered flight came the very next day.

Erik Weisz was born in Budapest and arrived in the US at the age of 4. He began his entertainment career as a trapeze artist at the age of 9, before adding magic and escapee tricks to his repertoire. To honour his idol, French magician Robert Houdin, his stage name became Harry Houdini, and he began performing magic tricks around the world. He became interested in aviation and, in 1909, purchased a French-built Voisin pusher biplane for around $5000. It didn't take him long to crash the aircraft, but on the 26th November 1909, he successfully flew in Hamburg, Germany. Houdini was offered the chance to travel to and tour Australia, something he had initially declined due to the long travel time by ship (he was very prone to sea sickness) and the distance it placed him away from his family. Seeing a chance to enter the record books and be paid for the 12 week ocean voyage, he accepted the tour and bought his aircraft with him.

Houdini based himself at Diggers Rest in Victoria along with rival pilot Ralph C Banks, waiting for the perfect flying conditions for his maiden flight. He would only leave the aircraft to perform his shows in Melbourne, returning each night and sleeping under the wing in the hangar. Banks attempted a flight on the 1st of March but ended up crashing due to poor weather conditions. He survived, but his aircraft was destroyed.

On the morning of March 18, 1910, once the weather had improved at around 8am, Houdini took to the Australian skies for the first time. His first flight only lasted around one minute and reached a height of 25 feet, but was witness by at least 9 other people (including Ralph Banks, who signed a witness statement), as well as reporters from The Age and The Argus who verified the flight. Houdini went on to fly 3 flights that day. The second flight he nearly crashed on landing, but the final flight was brilliant. Reaching a height of around 100 feet, he flew circuits around Plumptons paddock for three and a half minutes. Houdini was the first aviator to have documented the events on film (which can be viewed on YouTube), and his name was officially entered into the record books as the first person to fly a powered aircraft in Australia.

After his Australian tour, Houdini had announced that he intended to fly his aircraft from city to city across Europe. After making 18 flights in Australia, he placed the aircraft in storage in England, but unfortunately he never flew again after leaving Australia. He sold the aircraft in 1913 and what happened to the Voisin after that, noone really knows.

"When I went up for the first time I thought for a minute that I was in a tree, then I knew I was flying. The funny thing was that as soon as I was aloft, all the tension and strain left me. As soon as I was up all my muscles relaxed, and I sat back, feeling a sense of ease. Freedom and exhilaration, that's what it is." - Harry Houdini.

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