Inside the Collection

First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 3

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Harry Houdini, Fred Custance and the “Aviation History Wars”

Aviation journalist, Jack Percival, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald of August 7th, 1960:

No special celebration is planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the first flight in a powered aeroplane in Australia…the experts can’t agree to whom the honour should be given for the first true flight.

It was clear to Wing Commander Harry Cobby, a First World War fighter ace, and Controller of Operations, Civil Aviation Board, when he wrote in an article in Aircraft in March of 1938 that “the first aeroplane flight in the Southern Hemisphere was made in 1909 by Mr Colin Defries, a Londoner, at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney, in a Wilbur Wright aeroplane”. However, subsequently this clarity became lost in historical fog. This loss was aided and abetted by George Augustine Taylor who had the task of writing the history of Australian aviation for the first edition of The Australian Encyclopedia, appearing in the mid 1920s. In his ‘history’, he made no mention of Defries preferring to give the first flight accolade to Ehrich Weiss, better known as escapologist, Harry Houdini, who had flown his French-made Voisin biplane very impressively at Diggers Rest, near Melbourne on March 18th, 1910. The reasons for Taylor’s neglect of Defries are speculative, but it is plain from the surviving evidence that the two men did not like one another and Taylor did not like the Wright brothers because he felt that they had ‘stolen’ Lawrence Hargrave’s ideas without acknowledgement.

houdiniImage above: Houdini at Diggers Rest near Melbourne on March 18, 1910.

Taylor’s input into The Australian Encyclopedia remained until revised in 1965 by aviation journalist Stanley Brogden relying on his research for his book, published in 1960 titled History of Australian Aviation. Unfortunately, Brogden doesn’t specifically identify his sources of information preferring to acknowledge “…the editor and proprietors of the magazine Aircraft“. From his research, he formed the view that the first powered flight in Australia took place at Bolivar in South Australia, the aircraft was a Bleriot monoplane with Fred Custance as the pilot. The supposed flight took place on March 17th, 1910, the day before Houdini’s flight. In 1967, Brogden revised his view, coming to the opinion that Custance couldn’t be credited with the first flight because “…Custance had never flown before, that he had no proper control of his machine, and that the flight was not witnessed by any independent authority”.

custance_01_200Image above: Fred Custance in the First World War. Image courtesy of Monash University.

Brogden’s recantation was printed in a publication called Commercial Aviation-Around Australia Program which unfortunately did not have the wider readership of The Australian Encyclopedia. Brogden was right to reject Custance’s flight because in 1957 the Bleriot’s owner, Fred Jones, had written to his engineer, Bill Wittber, confessing that the claimed circling flight of March 17th 1910 by Custance was a “myth” to use Jones’ word and Custance’s second flight attempt was a take off followed by a crash slightly injuring Custance and damaging the Bleriot. With Jones as the uncorroborated witness, his testimony on height and distance is suspect and the inference is that Custance stalled on take off, nosediving into the ground, without travelling any great distance or demonstrating control.

custance_carroll_500Image above: Custance with his Bleriot monoplane. Image courtesy of Monash University.

The next contributor to the history of Australian aviation in The Australian Encyclopedia was Ron Gibson, first president of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, NSW Branch, who, in 1977, supported Brogden’s original attribution to Custance at Bolivar. Earlier, in 1972, Gibson had contributed an article to the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society in which he acknowledged Defries’s flights, but then dismissed them as qualifying for first flight status on account of their original non-acceptance by the Aerial League of Australia, George Augustine Taylor’s creation, and secondly because “purists” reasoned that “…the pilot [Defries] did not demonstrate any ability to control and steer his craft”. These anonymous “purists” seem to have been unaware that the Wright Model A aircraft was controllable and coming into wide use in America and Europe and that Defries was a trained pilot, having been taught to fly at Cannes in France and he then added a brief flight time testing The Stella at Juvisy outside of Paris. By modern standard his flight time was minimal, but in 1909 he had enough to become an instructor! That he controlled his aircraft should not be in doubt. He took it off, maintained straight and level flight, albeit briefly, and landed safely, at least on his first flight. His crash landing on his second flight demonstrated what a momentary lack of attention could cause while flying a Wright Model A.

6 responses to “First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 3

  • As a none historian, I am dismayed at subjective reporting of facts.

    This is a very biased viewpoint and not consistent with the consensus of the Australian government or early aviators ar all. The 50th an anniversary was celebrated at Essendon airport with the support of the aviation community and federal / state goverments.

    Such a prejudiced report really does cast doubts about this musuem’s intentions and integrity. It is alarming that this institution would not investigate facts and prefer to make statements, without investigation, of, “lost in historical fog” and “the two men did not like one another” It would be much better if the museum simply wrote the facts rather than making such bold statements that can no longer be disputed or supported by the people who denied such wild conspiracy theories.

    I recently received an e-mail that informed me that this web site considered itself of a higher quality and status than other web sites. Until today, I was dismayed that one person thought that their information was superior to another’s but I can now see that such a statement is consistent with the ignorance with this report.

    You will be too embarassed to alter your conspiracy theories but I hope that this nonsense journal brings you some publicity.

  • Rob
    I’m dismayed at the tone of your comment. The invective is unnecesary. If you feel that the evidence is not compelling then I would be pleased to have your contra-evidence. Just because a celebration was held at Essendon with government support doesn’t mean that the celebration was well founded in the facts. As the current research indicates few people were sure of the facts then.

    My article is not a “conspiracy theory” and until I have evidence that refutes what I feel now to be the correct historical analysis I will have no need to change my position. When the contra evidence arrives I can review my position and if I am wrong then it will be no embarrassment to me to offer a corrected version. This is the nature of historical research and its publication.

  • Oops, looks like you left your book of ‘facts’ in your other pants! Or perhaps Mr Windschuttle ‘borrowed’ it 😉

    Anyone who has an elementary understanding of historiography would be more than aware that history is many things, however ‘simply writing the facts’ is certainly not one of them.

    How does the saying go? … ‘evidence talks, b******t walks’!

  • “Anyone who has an elementary understanding of historiography would be more than aware that history is many things, however ’simply writing the facts’ is certainly not one of them.”

    What rubbish! facts are sacred – they are the building blocks of history. If you write history without reporting the facts you’re writing fiction or propaganda.

  • Whatever the debate about the first flight in Australia, it certainly wasn’t the first flight in the Southern Hemisphere, as claimed by Harry Cobby.

    That honour goes to Richard Pearse whose flights, while they may or may not have predated those of the Wright brothers, had certainly taken place by 1904.

  • Hi Scott

    Thanks for your post.

    I will presume that you have read the available literature on Pearse, notably Ogilvie’s 1973 book and Rodliffe’s 1978 book. They suggest earlier dates than you for Pearse’s flight(s). Although Jarrett in Aeroplane Monthly , May 2003, mounts a rather convincing case that Pearse didn’t fly at all.

    Whatever, I’d like to keep the blog focussed on the early powered flights in Australia. To broaden it out beyond Australia opens up the possibility of revisiting the case for Gustave Whitehead over the Wright brothers in America; Alliot Verdon Roe versus Samuel Franklin Cody in England and let’s not forget the Canadians. While this may be interesting to some it has been widely treated over the years and those interested in the topic will remain convinced of their conclusion no matter which way the evidence ‘leans’.

    The evidence for the early powered flights in Australia has only been newly brought together and there is potentially more evidence out there that needs to be introduced into the discussion. Pearse is a topic for another day and another forum.

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