Inside the Collection

First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 2

Newspaper article featuring the Stella Wright Model A aircraft

Colin Defries and the first powered flight in Australia

Just four days after George made the first free heavier-than-air flight in the glider at Narrabeen, a young Englishman, Colin Defries left the ground in a Wright Model A, that he had named The Stella after his new wife, at Victoria Park race course south of Sydney. He flew straight and level at a height of about 20 feet (6.1 metres) for a distance of 115 yards (105.2 metres) and the watching crowd of 150, according to the reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald, was thrilled.

Defries’s flight was part of a “Flying Fortnight” organised by J&N Tait. Defries was to demonstrate the new ‘art’ of flying to audiences in Sydney before moving on to other capital cities for further demonstrations. Unfortunately, things weren’t going to plan for the Taits. The “Flying Fortnight” was supposed to begin on Saturday December 4 starting at 3pm, but adverse weather conditions prevented flight that day. Instead, Defries first had the Wright towed behind a car for the spectators and then started the engine and made several fast taxi runs around the course. A collision with a pile of timber hidden in the grass damaged The Stella and stopped any further demonstrations that day. It was not until the 9th that both weather conditions and aircraft were conducive to flight and Defries succeeded. The weather deteriorated again and Defries resorted to demonstrating the Wright by ground running. Again, fate stepped in and a rudder cable became tangled in the left propeller requiring a replacement propeller and rudder repairs. It was not until the last day of the “Flying Fortnight”, Saturday December 18th that the weather allowed another flight attempt. Unfortunately, the newspapers and the crowds had, for the most part, lost interest. Determined to fly before he and The Stella had to depart for their next engagement in Melbourne, Defries was at the race course early as were about 50 spectators and a reporter.

stella0

Defries’s flight was successful. According to the journalist, he achieved a distance of about 300 yards (274.3 metres) before his hat blew off and his effort to retrieve it caused The Stella to land heavily and ground loop creating significant damage. Despite the problems Defries, and the Taits, had encountered, Defries had made the first powered, controlled, sustained flight in Australia. Unfortunately for Defries, history was not going to treat him kindly.

5 responses to “First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 2

  • For over 80 years the flight of Colin Defries was debunked by witnesses, reporters and sugnificant historians. It is odd that, now when the 100th year anniversary approaches, historians are attempting to reclaim this flight as the first.

    If Colin Defries was the first to fly then why did other aviationist, and the Australian government, discount that his attempts in 1909 and 1910?

  • Hi Rob

    Thanks for your comment.

    It’s giving the game away if I tell you now the reasons why Defries was denied his accolade. All will be revealed in the upcoming episodes.

    Please comment again if, after reading episodes 3 and 4, you still have an issue with Defries now being claimed as the first to fly a powered aircraft in Australia.

  • The text description above is very confusing, the flight of 9th December is poorly described in the text – that flight is recorded as being 115 yards at a height of between 3 to 15 feet.

    This is clearly a situation of air beneath the wheels, and overcoming gravity, it is reasonable to apply the Gorell definition and come to the conclusion that this is “free flight”.

    There is no aspect of the Gorell definition relating to control, and very little control demonstrated in Defries flight other than lift?

    It is hard to see it therefore described as successful, controlled and sustained?

    The second flight of the 18th of December covered 300 yards of similar height, and ends in a crash as the pilot seeks to retrieve his hat, again this flight does not seem from the layperson or current pilot’s view to be successful or controlled, and applying the Gorell definition does nothing to change that situation?

  • Hi, Colin Defries is an ancestor of mine and my brother was named after him. Our family have always said right through the generations up to now that Colin Defries was in fact the first man to fly a motorised plane in Australia. I would be very interested in what is to come in Episode 3 and 4. Also those photos you have are fantastic, is there anyway we could obtain a copy of those photos?

  • Hi Karen

    It is good to have contact with another of Colin Defries’ descendants. I have had the pleasure of meeting Colin’s granddaughter, Zaniah. At a joint meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Sydney Branch and the Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW)to celebrate the centenary of Colin’s flights Zaniah was a guest speaker and she was able to establish contact with her father David, Colin’s son, now living in Spain, and have his voice transmitted to the assembled guests in the Powerhouse Museum’s theatre. It was truly a night to remember.

    I, and many others, have no doubt that Colin flew under the definition of flight established by the Gorell Committee in England. There will always be dissenters.

    Episodes 3 and 4 are on the Powerhouse blog for you to read and for images you can contact the Powerhouse Museum’s photo library. Details are on the Powerhouse website.

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