One hundred years ago in March 1910, two pioneering aviators were camped in a wind-swept paddock at Diggers Rest, 30 km north of Melbourne, vying for the record of being the first person to achieve a controlled powered flight in Australia.
Ralph Conningsby Banks was first to take to the air on 1 March in an imported Wright Model A Flyer. He had barely covered 300 metres at a height of less than 5 metres, when a sudden wind gust forced the plane into a dive ending with a heavy landing that somersaulted the plane. Banks was thrown clear and escaped with only minor injuries, but was badly shaken, while the plane was so damaged it took weeks to repair.
His competitor was the Hungarian-born American showman and escapologist Ehrich Weiss (aka Harry Houdini), who had personally imported a French-built Voisin biplane with the aim of achieving the first flight in Australia. After several earlier attempts were frustrated by strong winds, Houdini finally took off shortly after 8 am on Friday 18 March and flew a full circle of the paddock before landing less than a minute later. Two further flights followed the same day lasting up to 3¼ minutes in duration and reaching a height of 30 metres.
Ever the self publicist, Houdini ensured that a reporter from The Argus and photographer were present to record the event and had nine spectators, including Ralph Banks, sign a witness statement recording his achievement. Further successful flights by Houdini followed over the next three days culminating in a flight lasting 7 minutes 37 seconds that covered almost 6 miles (9.6 kms).
Houdini was awarded a trophy by the Aerial League of Australia, recognising his flight of 18 March 1910 as the first successful controlled flight by a powered aircraft in Australia. The true honour for the first powered flight in Australia, however, probably goes to Capt Colin Defries, who on 9 December 1909 made a flight at Victoria Park Racecourse in Sydney, using the same Wright Flyer that Banks would later use at Diggers Rest.
Milestones of Early Australian Flight:
- 12 Nov 1894 - Lawrence Hargrave is lifted 16 feet (4.87 metres) off the ground by four tethered boxkites at Stanwell Park, New South Wales.
- 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 feet (105 metres) 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 yards (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 recognized 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 horsepower (37 kW) four-cylinder horizontally-opposed aero engine for a biplane designed by Lawrence Marshall, to compete for a £5,000 Commonwealth Government prize for a military aircraft. The engine failed its intial 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.
- 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 Racecource, Victoria.
- 5 Dec 1911 - First Australian pilot's licence awarded to William Hart of Sydney, NSW.
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.