Banks blown away,
Houdini breaks out
AUSSIE AVIATION PIONEERS
Trivia question: Who performed the first controlled flight over Australian soil?
Answer: Ehrich Weiss, at Diggers Rest, Victoria, on 18 March 1910. You may know of him as escapologist Harry Houdini.
That is what the record shows, but some conjecture remains about who really was the first to fly in Australia.
The credit that went to Houdini was largely due to his ability to get publicity for his stunts, whether he was being thrust into the Yarra River fully bound only to surface free of his chains, or flying over a paddock at Diggers Rest in a primitive biplane.
To be fair, there was probably a technicality about what constituted “controlled” flight. Lack of witnesses to some attempts also cast a shadow over claims.
That apparently is why self-taught flier and Melbourne Motor Garage owner Ralph Banks was not credited with the feat of the first flight in Australia.
The Argus newspaper noted: “Banks made his flights without any fuss and although he was entirely inexperienced in flying he kept to his task persistently for months, takings his Wilbur Wright machine out at daybreak. Despite crash after crash eventually he succeeded in making many flights before Houdini was in Australian waters.”
This is the record as its stands: “At dawn on 18 March 1910 famous American escapologist Harry Houdini made the first Australian powered, controlled, sustained flight of an aircraft in Australia at Plumpton Dam, Diggers Rest.”
UP, UP AND AWAY
The first “heavier than air flight” (unpowered) in Australia was made by George S. Taylor in a glider at Narrabeen on 5 December 1909.
Before that, Lawrence Hargrave was the first person in Australia to be lifted from the ground in flight.
From 1893 Hargrave worked on box kites. On 12 November 1894, after several trials, Hargrave lifted from the beach at Stanwell Park near Sydney on a four-kite contraption tethered to the ground by piano wire.
Hargrave sought to find or make an engine that would be light and powerful enough to get flying machines into the air, keep them there and send them in a horizontal direction. From February to August 1892, he built 17 steam engines— all unsuccessful for the purpose of flight. He gave that idea away, returning later to study flying engines when he heard of the Wright brothers’ history-making venture. His work went virtually unrecognised by Australian authorities and his models eventually went to the Deutsches Museum at Munich, courtesy of the Bavarian Government.
In 1910 several powered aircraft were imported when the Commonwealth Government offered a 5000 pounds prize for development of the first Australian flying machine suitable for military purposes.
Colin Defries claimed to have flown a Wright Flyer at Victoria Park racecourse in Sydney on 9 December 1909. He tried several times – mostly unsuccessfully – to get airborne using an imported Wright biplane and a Bleriot. He didn’t get the acknowledgement that was afforded Houdini; perhaps it was the absence of “control”.
Fred Custance, a 19-year-old mechanic from South Australia, supposedly flew a Bleriot machine at Bolivar, near Adelaide, on 17 March 1910, the day before Houdini flew at Diggers Rest. But the claims of Defries and Custance were not backed by signed witness statements or photos and were rejected by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
One report years later said there was only one witness to Custance’s flight, his sponsor, who afterwards admitted the flight was “mythic”.
Enter Harry Houdini, inveterate showman, who made sure he had witnesses. He invited a film cameraman, press photographers and officials from the Aerial League of Australia to Diggers Rest where he was to try to become the first person to fly a plane in Australia.
He did not fly far in his Voisin biplane, just “a few hundred yards”. It was a small advancement on the Wright brothers’ effort six years earlier for 120 feet (36.5 m).
The aircraft was designed by Gabriel Voisin, a French aviation pioneer and the creator of Europe’s first manned, engine-powered, heavier-than-air aircraft capable of a sustained (1 km), circular, controlled flight that was made by Henry Farman on 13 January 1908 near Paris, France. About 60 Voisins were built.
Significantly, Houdini’s flight in his Voisin flight in Victoria just over a year after Farman’s, signalled the start of an aviation boom in Australia.
CHAINS COULDN’T HOLD HOUDINI
Houdini – dubbed “the Handcuff King” – built fame around the world as an escapologist by getting out of impossible situations, sometimes with the help of magic and trickery. He was signed to visit Australia by entrepreneur Harry Rickards. Rickards was born in England and gained some fame as a baritone, comedian and theatre owner, active in vaudeville and on stage. He emigrated to Australia in 1871.
According to The Secret Life of Houdini, Houdini’s Australian tour was encouraged by a British friend, Lord Northcliffe, who was eager to alert his country and her allies to the military potential of air power.
Be that as it may, it was reported Houdini was paid 200 pounds a week (some reports said the figure was 1,000 pounds a week) touring Melbourne and Sydney for three months with his famous magic act, escaping from handcuffs, chains and straitjackets. Winning the prize for flight would be a bonus.
Houdini’s first attempts to fly his 60-hp Voisin emblazoned with his “theatrical” name were hampered by weather conditions and mechanical problems. Worse was the appearance of a rival aviator Ralph C. Banks, who set up his new Wright Flyer on the same field. Houdini was accompanied by his full-time French mechanic, Antonio Brassac, who slept in a tent at night with the plane, such was his devotion.
READY, SET …
Said Houdini of his mechanic: “No mother could tend her child more tenderly than does Brassac my machine.”
The two aviators camped beside a dam on a farm in Plumpton Road, Diggers Rest, about 25 km northwest of Melbourne, in the hope of becoming the first to get airborne when the wind permitted.
Ralph Conningsby Banks was first to take to the air, on 1 March, in an imported Wright Model A Flyer. He covered about 320 yds (300 m) just less than 16 ft (5 m) above the ground when a wind gust sent the flimsy plane into a dive into the ground. Banks was thrown clear and suffered only minor injuries. He was badly shaken and damage to the plane two weeks to repair.
Next up was Hungarian-born Houdini in his imported Voisin biplane, bought in Germany. His first attempts at flight were thwarted by strong wind.
But just after 8 am on Friday 18 March He became airborne and flew a full circle of the paddock before landing safely almost a minute later. Two further flights followed the same day lasting up to 3¼ minutes at heights up to almost 100 ft (30 m).
Back to Banks, still acknowledged by some as Australia’s first aviator.
The Argus newspaper (C. J. Johnston) reported in 1939: “Banks took his lead from Defries. He had been mechanic for the unsuccessful attempts in Sydney by Defries.
“After Defries had made many unsuccessful attempts to fly the machine Banks became eager to try. Defries agreed. The machine was of the type built by the Wright brothers, who made the first successful flight in the world in December 1903. It was a four-cycle water-cooled engine with a 4½ in. bore and 4 in. stroke. The output of power was 30 to 35 hp at 1,200 revolutions, and the total weight 180lb. A vertical radiator was placed to the right of the pilot’s seat—a Vienna chair with the legs sawn off.
“Ralph Banks made his first attempt at the Moonee Valley racecourse. He started the machine up the straight. As it gathered speed a hurdle suddenly came into view. Back went the joystick and the machine lifted its wheels from the ground. But it was too late. The flight came to a sudden stop on the top of the hurdle. The course was inadequate for flying, so Banks set out to find a suitable ground. Eventually he found an ideal spot at Digger’s Rest, where he set up a workshop on a floor area of 50 square feet. As it was then impossible to try to fly when there was wind blowing, the tests had to be made in the early hours of the morning. The machine was wheeled out at 5 or 6 o’clock every morning.
“Banks soon proved himself to be a worthy pioneer. Knowing nothing whatever about the flying of an aeroplane, but with considerable mechanical knowledge, he began to teach himself to fly. His attempts to take the machine up resulted in many crashes, from which he emerged with hundreds of cuts and bruises. Inexperience made him employ his elevator too soon; over would heel the machine and hit the hard ground. So frequent were these smashes that two carpenters were kept continually on the job repairing the damage.
“One day when Banks was taxiing the machine across the field Mr. Donald McKellar and several other excited spectators rushed across to tell him that the wheels had left the ground for a short distance. Banks had not noticed that he had taken to the air for the first time. Many more attempts were made, but his difficulty was to keep the machine on the even keel. After persevering and patiently waiting for favourable weather this difficulty was overcome. Soon Banks began to make straight flights across the countryside, sometimes reaching a height of 50ft. and covering a mile of airway.
“One day came the news that Houdini was on his way to Australia with an aeroplane. Banks wrote to him at once and invited him to bring his machine to Diggers’ Rest which he described as an ideal aerodrome. Houdini arrived with his plane, a pusher type Voisin, which became to be called affectionately ‘the old box kite’ and a mechanic named Brassac. He set up his flying quarters at Diggers’ Rest”
Only a few witnesses were on hand when Houdini made history, but enough to record the event for posterity and earn the accolades that went with the achievement.
The Age newspaper (Melbourne) reported: ”In his first attempt, Houdini sent his machine tearing across the paddock at a tremendous speed, the biplane rising in less than a hundred yards. Just as it rose the machine swerved straight for a solid gum tree, and the hearts of the onlookers beat fast as they saw disaster – perhaps death – right in the track. Mechanically the aviator moved the elevating lever, and the biplane skimmed over the tree just like a bird.”
Houdini went on to make 18 flights while in Australia before having the Voisin shipped back to England where he intended to use it in stunts as he toured the country. But he didn’t fly the plane again, and despite thorough searches, nothing is known of what happened to the Voisin.
Houdini packed out theatres wherever he went on his tour. In Melbourne on 17 February 1909, he jumped from Queens Bridge into the Yarra River, manacled, and was able to wriggle free within a matter of a few minutes. This was his forte, flying was a hobby and its is said that he never bragged about his aerial feats.
Houdini died from complications from appendicitis on 31 October (Halloween) 1926, at Detroit in the US, aged 62. He was buried in a metal coffin that he had used in his escape acts.
The Houdini proclamation entered into the record books by the Australian Aerial League:
DIGGERS REST March 21, 1910.
“This document certifies that Harry Houdini, at 7 o’clock this morning, performed the record Australian flight in a Voisin biplane, remaining in the air for 7 minutes 27 seconds, in the presence of 30 witnessed, including the undersigned. Houdini’s movements were plainly hampered by a cross current of winds, which was pronounced by experience spectators to be distinctly dangerous. He reached a eight from 90ft to 100ft.”
The signatories included several prominent people; solicitors, doctors, yachtsmen, Ralph C. Banks from the Melbourne Motor Garage, and D. W. McCay, a reporter from The Argus.
SOURCES: Museums Victoria, Trove newspaper articles, press interview with Melton historian Graeme Minns, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Museum Australia, State Library Victoria.
Flight, 29 Jan 1910, “First Flight in Australia”.
The Argus, 16 Mar 1910, p.13 “Fledgling Aviators Trying Their Wings”; 19 Mar 1910, p.18 “Houdini Flies – Trials At Digger’s Rest”; 21 Mar 1910, p.9 “In Full Flight – Houdini’s Success – Three And A Half Miles”; 22 Mar 1910, p.8 “The “Bird” Man – Houdini’s Latest Success”.
The Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Mar 1910, p.17 “Aerial Flights – Handcuff King’s Performance.”
Parnell, Neville & Boughton, Trevor, Flypast – A Record of Aviation in Australia Australian Governemnt Publishing Service, Canberra, for the Civil Aviation Authority, 1988
Johnston, Capt E.C., “8. Air Transport in Victoria – One Hundred Years of Engineering in Victoria”, Journal of the Institution of Engineers Australia, Oct 1934, pp.377-378.
FOOTNOTE 1: Melton Shire held a Festival of Flight in 2010 to celebrate the events of 1910 at Diggers Rest. There is a Houdini Drive in Diggers Rest and some local businesses have used the Houdini name.
FOOTNOTE 2: The first Australian-made aircraft was designed and built by John Duigan, who completed a 7 m “hop” at Mia Mia, Victoria on 16 July 1910. Aspiring Sydney aviator L.J.R. (Jack) Jones built a series of aircraft from 1909 but none achieved flight until June 1911. He later built Australia’s first metal plane, the Wonga, in 1930.
On 23 February 1911, Frank Coles became Australia’s first aircraft passenger when aviator Joseph Hammond took his mechanic aloft while demonstrating Bristol Boxkites in Victoria. A Melbourne businessman, M. H. Baillieu, became Australia’s first paying passenger one month later, when he made a 19 km flight with Hammond. After purchasing one of Hammond’s Boxkites, Parramatta dentist William Hart became Australia’s first qualified pilot in November 1911.
In 1914, Frenchman Maurice Guillaux carried the first airmail from Melbourne to Sydney, then the longest airmail delivery in the world. When Captain Harry Butler returned from World War 1, he flew airmail from Adelaide to his hometown in South Australia and was quoted as saying:
‘The plane was great in War but it will be greater in Peace.
This…is the beginning of a new era in mail and passenger transport’
Milestones of early Australian aviation:
12 Nov 1894 – Lawrence Hargrave, inventor, astronomer, explorer and historian is lifted 16 ft (4.87 m) off the ground by four tethered box kites he designed at Stanwell Park, New South Wales. Adding a seat, he flew with the kites 16 feet (4.8 m) off the ground, thus proving to the world that it was possible to build a safe, heavier-than-air flying machine.
5 Dec 1909 – George Taylor makes the first free flight in a glider at Narrabeen Beach, New South Wales.
9 Dec 1909 – Englishman Colin Defries makes a brief flight of about 345 ft (105 m) in a modified Wright biplane at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney.
1 Mar 1910 – The first attempted powered flight in Victoria by Ralph Conningsby Banks in the same Wright biplane at Digger’s Rest, results in a crashed landing after an uncontrolled flight of around 300 yds (274 m).
18 Mar 1910 – Hungarian-born American Ehrich Weiss (Harry Houdini) completes the first extended circling flight in a Voisin biplane at Diggers Rest, Victoria. This flight was recognised by the Aerial League of Australia as the first official flight in Australia.
16 Jul 1910 – John Duigan makes a short first flight of the first Australian-built aeroplane at Mia Mia, Victoria. Duigan himself considered his later flight of 7 October 1910 to be his first truly controlled flight.
1910-1911 – Azor D. Robbins & Aubrey Keith Lock, built a 50 hp (37 kW) 4-cylinder horizontally-opposed aero engine for a biplane designed by Lawrence Marshall, to compete for a 5,000 pounds Commonwealth Government prize for a military aircraft. The engine failed its initial tests and was rejected by Marshall but was successfully used in a 1913 flight at Albury, New South Wales.
20 Feb 1911 – New Zealander Joseph Hammond makes the first cross-country flight in Australia from Altona Bay to Geelong in Victoria in a Bristol Boxkite biplane.
JOHN DUIGAN AIRBORNE AT BENDIGO
3 May 1911 – John Duigan makes the first public flights with an Australian designed and built aircraft before a crowd of spectators at Bendigo’s Epsom Racecourse, Victoria.
5 Dec 1911 – First Australian pilot’s licence awarded to William Hart of Sydney, NSW.