• First to fly in Australia – 99 years ago today

    Posted on March 18th, 2009 John Dorcey No comments

    A paddock outside Diggers Rest, a village 20 miles northwest of Melbourne, was the site of a race – a race to determine who would be the first to fly in Australia. The winner grew up in Wisconsin.

    While some of the minor details surrounding the event are somewhat clouded, the facts are known, if not widely. Harry Houdini was the first to fly a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in controlled flight in Australia. Houdini made aviation history on March 18, 1910, in his Voisin aircraft. His first flight lasted barely a minute, traversed a complete circle, and was witnessed by a dozen or so onlookers. That flight was followed by two others. The second ended in a nose-first landing after covering a distance of nearly two miles. The third flight lasted about three and a half minutes, flew a circular path of greater than two miles distance and reached an altitude of 100 feet.

    We also know that another hangar tent was located at the same paddock outside Digger’s Rest. Inside the tent rested the remains of a Wright aircraft. Some reports state the Wright and a Bleriot model were imported by Mr. L. A. Anderson to achieve the goal of first to fly in Australia. Pilot Ralph Banks, in an attempt to beat Houdini, took off on a windy March 1. The aircraft cleared the launch rail, struggled to about 12 feet, and crashed back to earth. Banks was hurt only slightly, the aircraft was less fortunate.

    As with the Wright brothers’ flights much discussion (and disagreement) focuses on what constitutes a successful flight. Numerous attempts were made by various pilots, each with questionable success. All of the attempts were international in makeup. Houdini, an American, who first flew in Germany, succeeded in a French aircraft. Banks (possibly Australian, English, or American) attempted with an American aircraft. Englishman Colin Defries had made an attempt in Anderson’s Wright on December 9, 1909, in Sydney. He made a second attempt in the Bleriot (French) on December 18. These attempts resulted in some damage to each aircraft. Another Bleriot, this one a model XI, was owned by an Australian businessman by the name of Jones, Australian Frederick Custance attempted to fly it on March 17, 1910.

    Harry Houdini at the controls of his Voisin aircraft ca 1910

    Houdini flew additional flights first on March 20, again at Digger’s Rest with about 120 onlookers. Later he flew at the Rosehill Racecourse in Sydney. While at Sydney, Houdini addressed an audience stating, “After my reputation as the Handcuff King is forgotten, I will be remembered in Australian history as the first man to fly here.”
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