Inside the Collection

First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 4

Souvenir Booklet titled The History of AviationImage courtesy of John Scott, 2009

Today marks the Centenary of Colin Defries’s historic flight in his Wright Model A ‘The Stella’ at Victoria Park Racecourse on 9th December 1909. To recognise this, here is my fourth and final instalment of the saga…

Armistice in the “Aviation History Wars”

The 1988 bicentennial project of the Civil Aviation Authority, an authoritative chronology of Australian aviation history, researched and produced by two well-respected aviation historians, Neville Parnell and Trevor Boughton, was an opportunity to ‘blow away the fog’ and correct past errors, but the opportunity was lost. In their defence, the task they undertook was monumental and the work is a vital reference for researchers but, like all such works, errors will always occur. In dealing with the evidence relating to Defries, Custance and Houdini, they have tried to let the past speak for itself and the implication is that Houdini was the first to make a powered flight in Australia because the Aerial League of Australia gave Houdini a trophy and “…the flights were certified in writing by nine observers, and claimed as the first in Australia…”. There is no argument that Houdini flew the wings off Defries. Houdini had made three flights on March 18th, 1910 from 1 to 3.5 minutes duration, with a circling flight included. They were observed, photographed and filmed. Houdini was the consummate showman!

However, it has generally become acknowledged that the definition of flight established by the Gorell Committee on behalf of the Aero Club of Great Britain dictates the acceptance of a flight or its rejection. The definition of flight approved by the Gorell Committee states: “Free flight in an aeroplane occurs when the machine, having left the ground, is maintained in the air by its own power on a level or upward path for a distance beyond that over which gravity and air resistance would sustain it”. There is no requirement for lateral control or return to the point of take off. Based on this definition, is there any doubt that Defries flew?

At the moment all is quiet. However, it is expected that the ‘battle’ will flare anew as it did in England in 1958 when the supporters of Alliott Verdon-Roe took issue with the decision of the Gorell Committee and the supporters of Samuel Franklin Cody who was given the credit for the first powered flight in Great Britain. 1958 was the 50th anniversary of Cody’s and Roe’s flights. When the guns fell silent, Cody remained victorious. I expect the same for Defries.

* I am grateful to my colleague in the Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW), John Scott, who has researched this chapter of Australian aviation extensively and allowed me to use his work freely in talks and publications. John has published his work in “Loops and Landings”, his monthly contribution to the newsletter of the Society. I have used his battle metaphor that headed his series on the first flight controversy – “The Looming Australian Aviation History Wars” – as an entirely appropriate mechanism to contextualise the parochial feeling evoked by the controversy. Even so, I take full responsibility for all that is written above.

21 responses to “First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 4

  • It seems undisputed by any historical records that Defries aircraft left the ground.

    There has been the use of the Royal Aero Club as an arbitor, using its Gorell Committees definition which was created in 1929 to resolve the issue of the first british subject (person) to make the first flight in the UK, and arguing their definition does not refer to the need to demonstrate lateral control (or return to the point of take-off) does not in anyway shows that definition to be authoritive or correct, and particularly doesnt determine that “definition” is applicable to purposes beyond that it was developed for?

    “The committee decided that, for the purposes of “their
    investigation”, free flight in an aeroplane occurs when the
    machine, having left the ground, is maintained in the air
    by its own power on a level or upward path for a distance
    beyond that over which gravity and air resistance would
    sustain it.”

    John Scott’s paper goes on to propose:
    “it is possible to summarise the key dates for first flights in Australia as
    follows:-
    • December 5, 1909. The “first untethered flight in a glider” by George Augustine Taylor on a Voisin
    type, biplane glider, at Narrabeen Heads, NSW.
    • December 9, 1909. The “first powered, straight line flight” by Colin Defries on a Wright Model A, at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney, NSW.
    • March 18, 1910. The “first powered, circling flight” by Harry Houdini on a Voisin Biplane at Diggers Rest, Vic”

    Interestingly the same author later refers in his article to a similar short straight line “flight” by John Duigan as a “short hop”?
    “The first trials of the biplane were carried out at Mia Mia on July 16, 1910, achieving a few short hops. John Duigan’s first controlled flight was performed on October 7, 1910, over a distance of 196 yds at a height of about 12 ft.”

    However a far more authoritive account is provided by John Duigan’s Nephew Terry, who delivered the 7th Lawrence Hargrave Oration to the RAeS in 1962, based on notes prepared and reviewed with his father Reg who was involved in the aircraft’s construction and testing as John’s brother and co-builder – that presentation states of the 16th July flight – “Eventually the new cylinders and larger propellers were fitted and testing started again. By July 16th 1910 the machine was indubitably flying, rather then bouncing, but the belt drive not transmitting the whole of the increased torque, and even if it had been, the engine was still overheating”

    We therefore seem to creating a new definition, of a “circling flight”, of one returning to its point of take-off? where as the achievements of Houdini in March are clearly more than that regardless of completing a circle of not? – Houdini clearly demonstrates sustained, controlled flight, regardless of the manoeuvre being a simple turn, bank, roll or pitch or a complete circle of the paddock?

    This grapple for a term such as “circling flight” seems only required to avoid the simpler term of “controlled flight” and the questions that then raises to the status of Defries flight in comparison?

    Unfortunately then we seem to continue to mis-report the efforts and results of these Australian Aviation pioneers to focus on one, and gloss over another?

    The only evidence of “control” is the lift from ground to a height of 15 feet, but there is really no proof that is under pilot control rather than simply the matural lift of the wing under power. Certainly there is no evidence of pitch or yaw, the other 2 of the 3 axis’ of control recognised as the achievements of the Wrights in finally achieving powered flight.

    Efforts in Victoria to stage and promote celebrations of the Centenaries of Flight in Australia have tried to acknowledge Defries, Wittber, Custance and Banks for their efforts, while focusing on Houdini and Duigan for their particular acheivements.

    A committee formed in Victoria to co-ordinate and plan these events in early 2009 ensured Houdini’s achievements were described as Australia’s first successful, sustained, controlled powered flight, to avoid the 3 way tug of war over the who flew the first powered “flight”?

    Houdini’s longest flight was three and a half minutes covering 3.2 kilometres, it is clearly sustained, controlled and successful, far exceeding anything achieved by the earlier attempts.

    It seems clear Defries has been forgotten, ommitted or belittled by some past historians and denied his place in Australian history, his was clearly the first attempt at powered flight in Australia, and is entitled to make claim as the first powered flight in Australia for his efforts.

    However we are now seeing the pendulum being driven too far the other way? and the proponents of that are as guilty of distorting the facts of history as those they accuse of doing so in generations and publications past.

    Arising from the recent “evidence” of the Defries case, and apparantly due to “representation by authoritive experts” on the significance of Defries over Houdini, Australia Post has now issued a set of stamps celebrating the Centenary of Powered Flight in Australia, the three stamps commemorate Defries in the Wright, Houdini in the Voisin, and Duigan in his 1910 pusher bi-plane.

    We are now seeing Defries inaccurately described and recorded by Australia Post and for education of the General Public on page 6 of Stamp Bulletin Australia, as undertaking “the first sustained, controlled flight in a powered aircraft” and listing the criteria set by the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain (the Gorell Committee) as the evidence.

    The same erroneous statements are made on their website http://www.stamps.com.au/shop/stamps/centenary-of-powered-flight

    For a trained pilot, Defrie’s accomplishments in Australia were quite disappointing, he took no further part in proceedings in Australia and returned to the UK. The local reports of his flights in Australia were significantly different to the claims he made on his return to the UK in the January 1910 Flight magazine, including of a flight on the 9th of December 1909 that “rose to a height of about 35 feet, and covered about a mile in 1 & 1/4 minutes”, he also claimed to have flown on the 10th of December 1909 with a passenger C.S. Magennis, however this flight is not recorded by local newpapers or historians at all.

    By this time world aviation had moved on from the bunny hops of Kittyhawk in 1903, by 1909 Bleriot’s were crossing the English Channel and Wright Model A’s had set new altitude records of 1600 ft, and many then, and even today, do not consider Defries exhibited control, or sustained flight.

    However it seems clear that Defries did lift the aircraft off under his control, and briefly travel in a straight line, and he is therefore able to claim his was the first powered flight in Australia.

    Houdini’s flight on the 18th of March in his Voisin was witnessed by enthusiasts, newspaper reporters and representatives of the Australian Aerial League, and was certified and acknowledged as the first controlled powered flight in Australia.

    However debate still rages through to today as to whom the first to fly in Australia?, Defries in NSW on 9th of December NSW?, Banks in Victoria on 1st of March 1910?,Wittber in SA on 13th of March 1910?, Custance in SA on 17th of March 1910? or Houdini in Victoria on 18th of March 1910?

    Definitions as to what constitutes a flight, of which version of a story is true, and which are embellishments are unfortunately argued on parochial state lines, causing some honest efforts to be minimised, and apparant inconsistancies in events to be ignored when it suits.

    It seems today clear Defries made the first attempt at Powered Flight in Australia in NSW on 9th December 1909, and although only flying briefly in a straight line, made the first powered flight on the same day based on public witnessed reports, therefore being able to be considered the first powered flight.

    It also seems clear that Houdini made the first successful, controlled and sustained Powered Flight in Australia in Victoria on 18th March 1910. His efforts on that day consisted of a substantial flight of significant height and length, demonstrating all axis of control, completing turns, and the first circuit in Australia, and therefore able to be considered the first successful, controlled and sustained powered flight.

    Rather than arguing over who was first, today’s generations should be focusing on celebrating and remembering the efforts of all of these pioneers.

    However all of these flights had been made in aircraft built commercially overseas, of types well proven to fly successfully in the hands of others, and two most successful flights todate were undertaken by overseas pilots with overseas flying training and experience, and there was no reason why these flights should not have been successful, and why some of the efforts are not well regarded then, and now.

    Despite the arrival in 1909 of these overseas aircraft, and various attempted or successful flights in various locations through early 1910 there was an even more impressive effort being developed by two local Australian brothers without any access to commercially built aircraft or formal flying experience or training.

    The brothers undertook their development privately on a family property in Victoria, and across 1909 undertook tethered tests with a home built glider loosely based on a Wright glider form. John Duigan, a trained engineer based his developments on the writings and calculations of the UK scientest Hiram Maxim, and photographs sent from overseas.

    Following his glider tests he commenced design and construction of a powered aircraft, loosely based on a Farman form becoming the 1910 Duigan pusher biplane being locally designed by John Duigan, and constructed by John and his brother Reg. This aircraft, constructed of Australian components including a motor designed and built in Melbourne, was subjected to rigorous testing by Duigan before any attempt at flight. His first short flight of 24 feet was achieved on 16 July 1910 at the family property “Spring Plains”, Mia Mia (between Kyneton and Heathcote, Victoria), was the first flight of an Australian designed and built aircraft.

    Interestingly there is no evidence that the Duigan brothers were aware of, or attended Diggers Rest in March 1910 to inspect the aircraft, or the flying attempts of Banks or Houdini?, and no reference to Duigan’s work or intentions in the press of the day? However of all the prewar pioneers, the Duigan brothers work and achievements is the most documented and perhaps the significant in its accomplishments..

  • Mark

    Thank you for your extensive comments on the first flight controversy. By and large you have covered all the bases. It has always been John Scott’s view, and I support it, that, parochial views aside, each state has a flight or flights to celebrate. Under the terms of the Gorell Committee Defries flew the Wright Model A as did Ralph Banks. However, their efforts were outshone by Houdini whose sustained flight, circling the paddock at Diggers Rest, showed what aircraft of the time were capable of. The situation for the South Australians is less clear as the information about Custance’s flight is filtered through the Bleriot’s owner, Fred Jones. He alone gave the story to the reporter of the Adelaide Advertiser and later proved himself unreliable when he, Jones, claimed to have been the pilot in an interview with Stanley Brogden in 1943. Unfortuately we have no independent witness statements to substantiate what happened at Bolivar. In a letter to Carl Wittber in 1957 Jones stated that Custance’s circling flight was a “myth” to use Jone’s word. Wittber, himself, claimed only a ‘hop’ and this is recorded as such on the cairn at Bolivar that he unveiled. But what of Custance’s subsequent ‘flight’that ended in the crash? We have no independent witness statements to confirm Jones’ account. However, that should not deter the South Australians from celebrating an honest attempt at flight even if the reported accounts of success appear to have been less than honest.

    Regarding Duigan’s flight endeavours and your thoughts on this subject it was reported in a special edition of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia Journal a number of years ago (my apologies that I don’t have it to hand to give a reference) that John Duigan did not regard his attempts prior to October 7, 1910 as flights. Whatever the case, John Duigan’s considerable significance in Australian aviation history is not diminished.

    When the Gorell Committee was established they had the accepted flights of the Wright brothers and those of Alberto Santos-Dumont to accommodate. To revamp the flight criteria to include a circling flight would have disqualified those significant flights. Thus the outcome was a definition requiring only straight line flight out of ground effect and no ballistic ‘hops’ allowed. Unless we want to rewrite the history of international aviation the Gorell Committee’s definition will continue to advise what constitutes a flight. Thus, Defries flew, Banks flew, there is doubt about Custance and Wittber but absolutely none about Houdini and it seems that it remains to confirm under the criteria whether or not John Duigan flew before October 7, 1910 despite his own reported statement to the contrary.

  • I have been keeping track of the very interesting discussions around the first flights and agree that all should be respected for their great contributions to pioneering flight in Australia.

    Of course, as the grand daughter of Fred Custance, I can’t help but be particularly interested in the way Fred is represented, and I have a few comments to add in relation to the account of what happened on 17th March 1910.

    I have Fred Custance’s own scrapbook which he started in August 1909 with the newspaper cuttings relevant to his efforts in achieving records for motor car and motor cycle travel and of course articles of the flight. There are reports publishing an account of the flight by the pilot himself (Fred Custance) including his own description of the two attempts, and a report that has Jones’ praising Fred Custance for his “nerve and pluck” in flying the Bleriot.

    So were both men together in conspiring to create a fiction ? I don’t believe so, if indeed Jones in later life had some reason to wish events were otherwise. I respect the honesty and integrity of my grandfather as a 19 year old keen to be in on “pushing the edge” at the time ….. not by design, not for personal gain, but just the excitement of having a go ! The sort of spirit that makes a pioneer.

    • Hi Janet!
      I am the historian at the North Road Cemetery, where your grandfather Fred Custance is buried. I compile information on the persons buried with us, and would love to hear from you in the interest of expanding the collection I have about Fred.
      Helen.

  • Janet,

    I understand your concerns, the written “confession” and therefore unreliable testimony of Jones unfortunately enbroils your grandfather into a contraversy without right of reply and apparant participation in a fraud.

    It is very hard 100 years later to seperate fact from fiction from a period where movie and sound recordings and news reporting was haphazard.

    I prefer to focus on the efforts and contributions of all of these flyers and to celebrate all their roles as Australian aviation pioneers.

    Regards

    Mark Pilkington

  • Janet

    Thank you for your contribution to the discussion. I am very keen to read Fred’s accounts of his ‘flights’and would be grateful if you could either add them to this blog or send me a photocopy to the Museum so that I can reappraise the Bolivar case.

    Thanks in anticipation.

  • The articles are quite long so to make the message readable in this forum I am first including an excerpt of two quotes of Fred Custance – then I will follow with a second message that contains the whole text of three arcticles to give the context of the reports (the third article I have included is a report on 14th March that contains an account of the trials of the Bleriot).

    The first personal account taken from The Register 18th March 1910 is as follows :

    -The Pilot’s Story-

    “What does flying feel like'” he repeated, “It’s not much different to running on the ground, except that you experience no bumps, and you have a sense of floating. The machine is very sensitive in the air – different to running along the ground. The engine made a great noise due to the absence of a silencer. That was omitted to economise weight. The first try was grand, and I alighted without a shock. Finding that the engine was running well, I determined to beat the 30ft. altitude which was said to have been attained in Sydney I opened the engine up, and she went up beautifully. When I reckoned she was high enough I tried to straighten her, but through an error of judgment raised the elevating plane too far, and the machine shot downward striking the ground head on. I had time to switch off before the impact took place; but the propeller was still revolving, and it was smashed to pieces. A cross member of the frame immediately in front of my seat was carried away, and I struck my head against the petrol tank. The tank – made of thin brass – was dented, but I escaped with a few bruises and a headache. Seeing I had never been in the air before, it was not bad to put up the first monoplane flight in Australia, the first flight of any kind in South Australia, and duration and altitude records for Australia. That shows what can be done, and I intend to have another try when repairs are effected. The mistake I made would easily have been rectified by an experienced man. but I’ll , never make it again. It is rather a coincidence that 12 months to the day Mr. G. G. White and I finished the Melbourne to Adelaide motor record which, in spite of three attempts to reduce it, still stands.”

    The other report was re-published in a paper with title “The News” – Adelaide, January 22nd 1937 – the original report may have been in The Bulletin as this is quoted in the article.

    FLEW FOR FIVE MINUTES
    About an hour later, flying solo in Mr. Jones’ machine, the pioneer aviator rose to a height of from 12 to 15 ft., remaining in the air for five minutes 25 seconds – a duration record not only for this State but for Australasia. The flight was witnessed according to a press report, “by several local residents who were astonished at the success.”
    After Mr. Custance had been congratulated on this feat he made the record height flight. Starting off with a 40-yard run the monoplane mounted to an altitude of 50 ft. The undercarriage and propeller were slightly damaged when the machine descended head foremost, but the flier escaped with bruises. Because of the damage to the monoplane, a flight set down for Cheltenham shortly afterwards was postponed.
    “I hardly knew I was off the ground.” Mr. Custance said in an interview. “It was most exhilarating.” He added that the mishap was due to an error in manipulating the elevators after he had travelled for 200 yards.
    On his first trial, he said, he had merely run along the ground to familiarise himself with the workings of the engine. Then he “jumped” the machine, and it rose to 12 ft.
    “Once there, I simply sat tight and steered, not caring to risk any variation of altitude. I covered about three miles in circles.”

    Paying a tribute to the feat, the “Bulletin,” reported that “Adelaide has gone in seriously for air-flying.”

    Message with the full articles to follow ……. regards Janet.

  • The Register
    ADELAIDE MON MARCH 14, 1910

    LEARNING TO FLY.

    TRIALS AT BOLIVAR

    A WEEK-END FLUTTER

    “SHE’LL GEE ALL RIGHT”

    {By our Special Reporter}
    Quiet and comparatively little known Bolivar – 10 miles north of Adelaide does not appear to have been born to greatness; but there is some likelihood that greatness will be thrust upon it. This is in connection with the conquest of the air, too! Mr. F. H. Jones has selected it as the place for trying his Bleriot monoplane, and since none of the other States has recorded anything in aviation worthy of note, insignificant Bolivar may yet claim the scene of the first successful aerial flights in the Commonwealth. That would be achieving fame in one leap.

    -Preliminary Problems. –
    An aeroplane flight is not a thing that can be arranged in five minutes. Indeed not. He who has attempted the pioneering part of the business in the State has found himself confronted by totally new requirements, and it has been a case of starting right at the beginning, and providing everything. Think of it in this light. When the motorist made his advent, roads and suchlike essentials already existed, it was only a matter of adapting himself to prevailing conditions. After all, it was but another step in the evolution of locomotion. Similarly with yachtsman, for whom streams and harbours offering the necessary facilities and shelter were already available. But the aviateur, as he is termed in France, in his desire to demonstrate this latest triumph of inventive genius, has no predecessors to whom he can look for assistance. He must begin anew. True, his highway above the earth is prepared for him, but there are other considerations which are indispensible. A machine, heavier than air yet comparatively light and highly susceptible to the influence of the wind and weather, must be securely housed when not in use, and the problem of storing the big dragon-fly, shaped arrangement, measuring 28 x 24 ft., becomes acute when it is necessary to leave the city, and obtain
    a clear, open space, 400 acres or more in extent for trial and practice purposes. That is just the difficulty which has beset Mr. Jones. He, however, has partially overcome it through the co-operation of Mr. A. Winzor, who has courteously granted him the use of one of his sections at Bolivar. Though rather small in area, the land has a good surface, and will serve for preliminary trials.
    -Chance for the Aerial League.-

    The housing of tire machine on the ground presented the greatest difficulty. The aeroplane, having been on view at the Magic Cave, and spent last week in Messrs. Eyes & Crowle’s garage was transported thither on Saturday in the huge case in which it was brought from Europe. That
    meant packing it up, and putting it together again on arrival. The task of assembling the parts and tuning up the numerous stays is easily a couple of hours’ work for two or three mechanics, and to that might be added another hour or more for removing the planes again for storing overnight. These operations present other disadvantages more serious than merely the amount of time involved. With a costly machine an owner is chary to take chances by trying it in a high or tricky wind. He must choose the few hours of calm each day for practice, at any rate until he “gets the measure” of the apparatus, and familiarizes himself with its particular vagaries. To avail himself to the full of these opportunities the machine must constantly be in readiness. Further than that, the various appurtenances require to be adjusted to the greatest nicety, and once that exactness is obtained the aviator could not depend upon striking it again if it was necessary to dismantle the machine immediately afterwards for storage. Thus it has already been recognised that a hangar–French aviators have supplied the term which is equivalent to the popularly accepted “garage” for a motor house -is in dispensable on the ground where the trials are made. It is a pretty tall order to to provide a stall to accommodate such a machine intact. As one of the party expressed it, it is not the size so much as
    the “awkwardity of the thing.’ If the Aerial League is going to tackle the practical side of its business, there is an excellent opening to encourage the sport by arranging to establish an aerodrome, that is to lease suitable grounds, and erect a hangar. While the game is still in its experimental stages, it is too much to expect one individual to find the whole equipment as well as the machine. Mr. Jones has resolved to approach the league to this end, and, pending its decision, he intends to make temporary arrangements by hiring a spacious marquee, which will accommodate the whole machine. No further trials will be made until its new canvas home is ready – a matter of a few days.

    -Flying Requires Practice –
    Sabbatarians whisper not! The machine was taken for its maiden run under Australian skies on Sunday. The greater part of the morning was occupied in erecting it, and preparing for the trial. What a golden opportunity was missed while this process
    was in operation! The air was still – not even a zephyr wandered over the fields. But by the time all was ready the wind
    had risen in fitful gusts, and precluded the possibility of carrying out anything in the shape of an exhaustive test. The machine was kept intact until late in the afternoon in the hope that, the breeze would die away, but, if anything, it freshened, and
    numerous spectators, who had travelled from far and near by horse, cycle, and buggy, to watch the trials, had to be content with viewing the stationary aeroplane.
    Mr. Jones stated that European inventors, with perhaps one dare-devil exception, invariably declined to attempt anything in the way of flights if the wind was at all troublesome. The risk was too great. Nobody would expect a novice to hazard an ascent without considerable practice. There is a lot to learn on the handling of these mechanical birds, apart from the mysteries of air currents and altitudes. It is to motorists chiefly, that the fascination of aerial navigation appeals, and they find a big difference between the ready response of the road machine and the sluggish answer or tricky pranks of the aeroplane. Considerable practice is required to enable the pilot to accustom himself to the new order. Among other things, the Bleriot Company advised the following :- A ground about three-quarters of a mile square, of smooth surface, and without fences or obstructions; practice with the engine with the machine anchored, and a few days in driving on the wheels or semi-flying around the ground at half-speed to practise steering, elevating rudders, and warping the wings. All this was preliminary to flying.

    -“Sky” Pilot Aboard.-

    “That’s the monoplane,” observed one of’ the spectators to the youngest of the company present. “No, father, that’s an aero plane. I know monoplanes have no planes.” The parent did not insist upon his own opinion, as he might rightly have done. By 11 a.m. all was ready for the initial run. The wind was the only disappointing feature. Mr. F. C. Custance, who is well known as the colleague of Mr. G. G. White in establishing the motor records between Adelaide and Melbourne and Melbourne and Sydney, and has thrown in his lot with Mr. Jones for the time being, climbed into the pilot seat, while the powerful Anzani engine was set in motion. It
    required the strength of four pairs of hands to restrain her when the engine was opened out, and the breeze created by the two-bladed propeller was of hurricane force. When it was slowed down, the pilot’s hands went to his eyebrows. “Thought they had been blown away,” he remarked. Running at half-speed the machine was released and off it went on its carriage to the other end of the section. An easy pace was maintained just for experience, and to ‘”feel” the ground. Mr. Custance said he was quite happy on his new mount, but it felt a bit strange. That strangeness must wear off before any attempt is made to leave the ground. A similar run was taken by Mr. C. W. Wittber (foreman for Messrs. Eyes & Crowle), and on the return trip before the wind, the machine did an unexpected flutter. A strong puff caught one of the planes, and caused the machine to rise a few feet clear of the ground, but as she was heading for a rather nasty spot power had to be shut off, and she came to a standstill. ‘She’ll gee all right.” was the comment of the spectators. The engine was subjected to further satisfactory tests with the machine anchored, after which the trials were abandoned for the day on account of the freshening breeze. Messrs. Jones and Custance intend to continue the experiments during the next fortnight, by the end of which it is expected that the “sky pilot” will have attained efficiency in skimming and short flights.

    ———————————————————————————————————

    The Register
    ADELAIDE:FRIDAY, MARCH 18. 1910.

    BLERIOT RIVALLED.
    FINE FLIGHTS AT BOLIVAR.
    SUCCESSFUL SOUTH AUSTRALIANS
    AN UNFORTUNATE DESCENT
    The first serious attempt at flight in a monoplane in South Australia was made on Thursday morning and resulted in a flight and height record for Australasia – and a damaged machine, At 3 o’clock inthe morning Mr. F. H. Jones drove to Bolivar, where the Bleriot monoplane has remained since last Sunday’s trials, and at about 5 o’ clock Mr. F. C. Custance took his place in the pilot seat. A few preliminary twists of the propeller, and the machine was under way at a good speed.

    It rose quickly, and, with the fences of the paddock as a guide, the area was covered thrice in rapid succession a distance of about three miles. The height of flying was between 12 and 15 ft. The machine was in the air for about 5m. 25s., which constitutes a duration record for Australiasia. It was also the first flight of a monoplane accomplished in Australia.

    After waiting for daylight, Mr. Custance again entered the machine with the intention of establishing a height record. The machine started off in wonderful fashion from a 40-yards run, and quickly mounted to a height of about 50 ft., which is the greatest elevation yet attained by a monoplane in Australasia. After travelling for about 200 yards, Mr. Custance made a slight error in manipulating the elevators, and caused the machine to descend suddenly head foremost. The under carriage of the machine was smashed and the propeller broken, but the damage was not nearly so great as appeared at first glance. None of the planes was broken, and the main frame from the seat backwards was found to be intact.

    When the machine descended Mr. Custance was thrown through the framework and struck his head against the petrol tank. Fortunately he escaped with a few slight bruises. Immediately after the accident the machine was placed upon a trolly and taken to Adelaide, where repairs will be effected. These will occupy at least two weeks. The flight was witnessed by several local residents, who were astonished at the success. Both the aviator and the owner were delighted with the success which had attended the trial – in fact Mr. Jones was scarcely concerned at all about the damage to the machine.

    -An Early Triumph-
    Success at the second attempt! That’s a notable achievement, especially in view of the expressed instructions of the Bleriot manufacturers that novices should practice first with the machine anchored, second by running it along the ground, and third, in a series of short hops prior to attempting actual skimming or flight. These preliminary trials were expected to take a fortnight. But what happened? Young Custance had one trial run along the ground on Sunday last, and on the next occasion – Thursdav – he flew. The accident was unfortunate and with a little more experience e could have been averted, but then, experience is the best teacher and when one takes short cuts to a success in aviation it cannot be done without a risk
    -What the Owner Saw.-
    Mr. Jones in an interview, stated: “When. we took the machine out at 5 o’clock, there was a dead calm and the air was moist. This suited our purpose admirably. The machine was released, and after running 70 or 80 yards along the ground it rose with a nice gentle sweep to a height 12 or 15 ft. After doing the three miles in 5m. 25s., the pilot landed without any trouble. Custance, anxious to eclipse the altitude of 30ft. said to have been obtained by Defries in a Wright machine at Sydney, took his seat again and opened the engine full out. It took me all my time to get out of the way. She gave a run and two hops, entered the air at a very high angle, and shot up to 50 or 60 ft. At that height the airship travelled 200 yards. The machine was still rising and the pilot altered the elevating plane to straighten her. Unfortunately he overdid it, and she dived earthward at an angle of about 45 deg., landing almost head on. There was a great crash, which attracted the attention of people a considerable distance away.

    “I saw all the flying at the Rheims meeting in France a few months ago, and not one of the aviators there rose as rapidly as Custance did. Experienced flyers prefer to rise more gradually. A Curtiss machine is credited with having risen in 6s., and I reckon Custance’s second attempt came very close to it. He had not gone 40 yards when the machine cleared the ground. The flight was witnessed by Mr. A. Winzor and Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer, who live near by.

    “1 think Custance will make an excellent aerial pilot. He is keen, and has plenty of nerve and pluck. His first flight was like that of an experienced aviator. Repairs will be effected by Messrs. Duncan and Fraser. The chief trouble will be to replace the propeller. I may be able to get one in Melbourne, or the firm named might make one. I ordered a spare propeller from England some weeks ago. I intended to give a demonstration on March 26. That will have to be postponed. I desired to have some guarantee of its success in order that the public should not be disappointed. I will issue challenges immediately to, allcomers in Australia. A better ground and facilities for housing machines is badly needed, and I hope the Aerial League will do something in this direction The machine is worth about £1,000, and the damage about £50.”

    -The Pilot’s Story-

    “What does flying feel like'” he repeated, “It’s not much different to running on the ground, except that you experience no bumps, and you have a sense of floating. The machine is very sensitive in the air – different to running along the ground. The engine made a great noise due to the absence of a silencer. That was omitted to economise weight. The first try was grand, and I alighted without a shock. Finding that the engine was running well, I determined to beat the 30ft. altitude which was said to have been attained in Sydney I opened the engine up, and she went up beautifully. When I reckoned she was high enough I tried to straighten her, but through an error of judgment raised the elevating plane too far, and the machine shot downward striking the ground head on. I had time to switch off before the impact took place; but the propeller was still revolving, and it was smashed to pieces. A cross member of the frame immediately in front of my seat was carried away, and I struck my head against the petrol tank. The tank – made of thin brass – was dented, but I escaped with a few bruises and a headache. Seeing I had never been in the air before, it was not bad to put up the first monoplane flight in Australia, the first flight of any kind in South Australia, and duration and altitude records for Australia. That shows what can be done, and I intend to have another try when repairs are effected. The mistake I made would easily have been rectified by an experienced man. but I’ll , never make it again. It is rather a coincidence that 12 months to the day Mr. G. G. White and I finished the Melbourne to Adelaide motor record which, in spite of three attempts to reduce it, still stands.”

    ——————————————————————————————————-

    THE NEWS ADELAIDE: FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, 1937.

    First S.A. Flight Made 27 Years Ago
    ADELAIDE MAN FLEW MAN FLEW MONOPLANE
    AT BOLIVAR FOR 5 MINS.
    Made Height Record-50 ft.-Same Day
    NEWSPAPER cuttings of 27 years ago, in the possession of Mrs. E. V. Custance, of Marian place, Prospect. describe the first aeroplane flight made in South Australia. The hero was her husband, Mr. Frederick C. Custance, who died 14 years ago.
    At Bolivar just 12 months after he had established a new motoring record from Adelaide to Melbourne, he made flight and height records.
    While in his ‘teens. Mr. Custance had brought himself under the notice of motoring enthusiasts by several long trips. In March. 1909, with Mr. G.G.White, he motored from Melbourne to Adelaide in 20 hours 6 min., smashing the previous record held by Messrs B. Barr Smith and Murray Aunger (22 hours 24 min.).
    Early in 1910 Mr. F. H. Jones, of Adelaide, imported a monoplane similar to the one in which M. Bleriot flew the Channel. Mr. Custance undertook the then very risky task of learning to fly the machine. He was in his twentieth year when he accomplished three flying records for the State.
    At 3 a.m. on March 17, 1910, he and Mr. Jones motored to Bolivar, where the monoplane was ready for the momentous “hop.”

    FLEW FOR FIVE MINUTES
    About an hour later, flying solo in Mr. Jones’ machine, the pioneer aviator rose to a height of from 12 to 15 ft., remaining in the air for five minutes 25 seconds – a duration record not only for this State but for Australasia. The flight was witnessed according to a press report, “by several local residents who were astonished at the success.”
    After Mr. Custance had been congratulated on this feat he made the record height flight. Starting off with a 40-yard run the monoplane mounted to an altitude of 50 ft. The undercarriage and propeller were slightly damaged when the machine descended head foremost, but the flier escaped with bruises. Because of the damage to the monoplane, a flight set down for Cheltenham shortly afterwards was postponed.
    “I hardly knew I was off the ground.” Mr. Custance said in an interview. “It was most exhilarating.” He added that the mishap was due to an error in manipulating the elevators after he had travelled for 200 yards.
    On his first trial, he said, he had merely run along the ground to familiarise himself with the workings of the engine. Then he “jumped” the machine, and it rose to 12 ft.
    “Once there, I simply sat tight and steered, not caring to risk any variation of altitude. I covered about three miles in circles.”

    Paying a tribute to the feat, the “Bulletin,” reported that “Adelaide has gone in seriously for air-flying.”

    MOTOR CYCLING RECORD
    It was on November 22, 1912, that Mr. Custance broke the Australian record for motor cycling, covering 532 miles in 24 hours on Yorke’s Peninsula. The previous record was 522 miles. He was delayed at one point through having to stop every few hundred yards to scrape the mud off the wheels of the machine.

    Mr. Custance died in tragic circumstances when he was 33. He was motoring in the bush with Mr. Trevor Hawker -in June, 1923. The car broke down and also became bogged, and Mr. Custance began to walk towards Olary for assistance, while his companion remained by the car. When no aid was forthcoming, Mr. Hawker lit a fire and camped for the night. There was no sign of anyone next day, so he, too, continued on foot. He found Mr. Custance’s body lying near a roadway only one and a half miles from Olary. It is believed that he became ill during the journey.

    It has been suggested that Mr. Custance’s achievement in Pioneering aviation in this State should be marked by the erection of a tablet.

  • Wow! Janet, thank you for putting in that effort. It’s good to have the information collected together. Your grandfather certainly had a lot of courage.

    After several readings of this information the circling flight of the Bolivar paddock still must fall at the hurdle of Jones’ letter to Wittber in 1957. As Jones was corresponding with someone who was there he has no motive for ‘gilding the lily’. His motive for mentioning it at all seems to be his awareness that he is calling for the newspapers to tell the truth- that his Bleriot’s propeller was not responsible for severing the hand of a teenager – while he told a lie to the press about the circling flight.

    However,the second flight of Custance, I feel, could do with further close scrutiny. The engine of the Bleriot survives and the damage to it, I have been told, correlates with the information about the crash. A crash landing does not disqualify a flight under the Gorell Committee criteria so there is a possibility that Custance’s second ‘flight’ could be construed as such. I’ll confer with members of the Royal Aeronautical Society using the information contained in your post to obtain their considered opinion and post the result here when it is available.

    Thank you again Janet. Very much appreciated.

  • Thanks Ian – I appreciate your time in reviewing this material.

    My main point was that the account of the events of 17th March does not rely solely on a report by Jones, but that a first hand account of the two flights by Custance himself, also exists. With the presence of three local witnesses, this means that the honesty and integrity of all these people is called to account if the flight of 5 min 25 secs is to be written off as fiction. The original account of the two flights does not appear to have been refuted for more than three decades after the event.

    Surely there is a place for accepting the then unchallenged, accounts of the time, as the various changes to the accounts that have been brought out decades later, can neither be fully refuted or substantiated.

    I would be interested in your feedback on the following –
    • The reports of the day do not have Wittber present at Bolivar on 17th March – they have him present for the trials on 13th March when the “hop” occurred. Do you have some other information ?

    • In The Argus of 1943 Jones claims to have piloted the Bleriot on 17th March for both the 5min 25secs and the 50ft height attempts. Surely this puts doubt on his accounts decades later, when the reports of the day clearly quoted his praise for Custance as the pilot.

    • I presume the provenance of the letter written by Jones to Wittber in 1957 was verified. Under what circumstances did it become public ? Was it published ? Do you have the text ?

    • The incident of the arm being severed was not in reports of the day around events of the 13th or 17th March (there was no crowd to push someone into the path of the plane on 17th March, so it’s unlikely to have occurred then). Do you have information about when this was reported ?

    I only have an undated clipping from years later, on an anniversary of the 17th March that refers to the arm severing as occurring on a third attempt (the Bleriot was reported to have been repaired and ready for further flight on 14th April 1910). The report then goes on to say that Jones was so upset after the incident that he dismantled the plane and put it in storage, and of course the fire that destroyed the plane is reported on 20th May 1910.

    Look forward to your thoughts …….regards, Janet.

  • Hi Janet

    Wittber wasn’t present on the 17th. He was either back at work or, as one secondary source claims, he was sick. In an article published in the AHSA Journal, December, 1963, Wittber wrote that Jones had advised him of Custance’s circling flight “…later that day…”. The details that Wittber gives of the flight in the article, actually written in 1958, must take into account the passing of 48 years and the possible memory fade. However, it seems that Wittber and Jones stayed in contact after Jones moved to Melbourne in 1916 as the 1957 letter calling Custance’s flight “mythical” suggests that Wittber was aware of the truth at this time.

    The Argus report of 1943 adds evidence of Jones’ propensity to fabricate. This puts him into the category of an unreliable witness. Without testimony from the only other witnesses on the day, the Winzors and their neighbours, the Sawyers, we only have the testimony of Jones and Custance. As they agree and Jones, in the 1957 letter, admits the fabrication we are left with the conclusion that your grandfather colluded with Jones to maintain the fiction of the circling flight.

    The question is begged; why did Jones mention the “mythical” nature of the flight in the 1957 letter to Wittber. In conversation with John Scott yesterday, John mentioned that he thought that Jones’ and Wittber’s relationship was a bit ‘thorny’. This was more to do with Wittber’s personality, John opines. If this is so then it helps to explain why Jones mentions the flight. The main purpose of the letter was to gain Wittber’s support in getting the newspaper reporter to tell the truth; that Jones’ Bleriot propeller was not responsible for the severing of a teenager’s arm. Jones’ was establishing his defence as best he could in case Wittber retorted that truth with Jones had died in 1910 when he told the lie about the circling flight to the reporter of “The Register” or something to that effect.

    The 1957 letter has been published in a small book by Damian Lataan and Reg Laught, titled “Those First Australian Flights: Bill Wittber’s Contribution to Australian Aviation History”, (D & S Publications, Hahndorf, SA, 1993). A photograph of the letter appears in the book and Reg Laught was Bill Wittber’s nephew, if memory serves correctly.

    John Scott reproduced an excerpt from the letter in his “Loops and Landings” supplement to the Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW) newsletter “Southern Skies” for November, 2008 and this has been reproduced in the latest edition of “Aviation Heritage” (p.54). The important part of the letter here is: “Poor old Custance is gone, but you and I know all about that mythical flight, three times around the paddock etc. by him, but we can discuss this a little later on and perhaps personally as I’ll be making a trip over there shortly I hope.” As John goes on to note the meeting never took place as Fred Jones died early in 1958.

    John Scott’s supplement also contains the answer to your last question. The undated clipping you have may be the one mentioned by John, that by H A Lindsay in “The Advertiser” of May 1957 which wrongly attributed the severed limb to Jones’ Bleriot rather than Lawrence Adamson’s one. The accident occurred to 16 year old Ewart Lock who lost his right hand after being hit by Adamson’s out-of-control Bleriot at Cheltenham Racecourse on July 23, 1910. Lindsay is identified as the ‘jounalistic culprit’ by name in Jones’ letter to Wittber.

    I look forward to your thoughts on my post. The more I read the more intriguing this piece of history becomes.

    Regards, Ian

  • Thanks for all your information Ian.

    I can see reports in “The Register” during July 1910 clearly link the demonstration of Adamson’s Bleriot to the severing of the arm incident. Surely these reports could have been referred to in order to correct the account published in 1957.

    I would like to think that caution is used in trying to read motives into the various actions / confessions made decades after the event. What if Jones and Wittber felt the truth of the 5min 25sec flight was inconveniently wasted on Custance who was long gone ? What if Wittber thought his “hop” should have been the ground breaker ? How can Jones’ motives for claiming to have made the two attempts himself be interpreted ? There is nothing to be gained in contemplating any of these scenarios if there is no information. My feeling is however that practically speaking, it would be far easier to meddle with the truth decades later, than to organize a public fabrication of events under the eye of three witnesses and an “accomplice”.

    Fred Custance was the son of Professor John Daniel Custance (the founding professor of Roseworthy Agricultural College, South Australia in 1881). Professor Custance was a man of integrity known for speaking his mind openly and honestly. It doesn’t ring true that his son proudly collected newspaper cuttings of his various records for motor car and motor cycle driving alongside the accounts of his flights, including his personal account to the press. He obviously loved the challenge of breaking new ground – he wasn’t doing it for any notoriety he was doing it for the personal challenge and the pursuit of his passion – if there was a record to be achieved then he was keen to have a go himself. After returning from nearly three years service in the Middle East with 1st Squadron AFC he continued the scrapbook including articles of his efforts at introducing the caterpillar tractor to outback properties in South Australia – having seen its benefits in the Middle East.

    Therefore I still think that more credit should be given to the accounts of the day – maybe it was a fluke – but often the less knowledge you have means that you are also unaware of the limitations – and therefore if you’re lucky enough and daring enough you can surprise others by what you can achieve !

    In regards to his service with the AFC (I remember your question at the AHSA meeting) – he trained at Point Cook and sailed in March 1916. We have his photo album which contains many photos from the air – including one being instructed on the use of the aerial camera. It also contains a shot of a plane with index entry – “good old ‘4520’ in which I did 40 hours, Cairo – Suez, Suez – Romani etc.etc.”.

    I hope this adds a little more background to the intrigue of these events !

    Regards, Janet.

    • Janet,
      I am interested in your comments as I have been chasing information on Fred Custance from a motorcycling aspect (working with Vivian Lewis,the 24 hour record whilst riding a Lewis motorcycle) and the earlier interstate records with “Crasher” White also as he was one of the numerous motorcyclists who eagerly took to aviation in WW1 and before. I was aware from a cousin of yours who died several years ago that there was a scrapbook and that it still existed but alas he was not that interested. If you could contact me on 08 83533438 I would appreciate it.
      Peter Allen

  • Hi Janet

    I must say that I am very grateful for your comments as they provoke deep thoughts about the events of 1910 at Bolivar. You make a good point about “…using caution in trying to read motives into the various actions / confessions made decades after the event.” A historian should feel the weight of responsibility for postulating the most likely scenario about a past event for which there are no living witnesses. Even when witnesses are available to testify their perceptions and biases have to be discovered and taken into account if the outcome is to be as close to the truth as is humanly possible. But we can’t just shrug our shoulders and not try to recreate historical events accurately. I think we need to understand past events if we are to move ahead successfully. That is the value I place on being a historian.

    However, first things first. It would have been helpful if the journalist, Lindsay, had done his homework and referred back to the archived newspapers to get his facts right about who owned the Bleriot that severed Ewart Lock’s hand. That he didn’t gave rise to the 1957 letter from Jones noting that the 1910 Bolivar circling flight was ‘mythical’. Thus his journalistic ‘laziness’ has provided an intriguing piece of evidence to weigh.

    From my assessment of Fred Jones’ character, and that of Wittber, I don’t believe that Jones and Wittber would have belatedly colluded to deny an event of such significance to Jones and I don’t believe that Wittber would have been tempted to collude in a falsehood. The 1957 letter adds to evidence that Wittber knew Jones was originally dishonest about the flight and Jones knew that Wittber had a problem with him in this regard.

    Jones carried the (self) deception of the flight to an interesting degree. In an article by Keith Meggs, President of the Aviation Historical Society of Australia Inc. in the latest journal “Aviation Heritage”, Keith notes that, having seen Fred Jones’ scrapbook during a visit to one of Jones’ descendents, the articles about the flight had the name ‘Custance’ removed with a blade and Fred Jones’ name inserted instead. It must also be remembered that Jones thrust himself forward when Stanley Brogden was writing the articles on flight in the ‘Argus’ in 1943 and claimed to have been the pilot of the Bleriot. When your grandmother, Edith, corrected Brogden with the evidence of the newspaper reports, Jones was forced to hedge but did not back down about his claim.

    This again focusses on your grandfather and his motives for supporting Jones’ spurious claim. I note with thanks your information about your great grandfather, Fred’s father. While I am sure that Fred was not loose with the truth in the Jones’ mould I take into account that he was a nineteen year old, almost twenty, at the time of the events we are discussing and in the sway of an older man of such success that he could purchase and import an aeroplane. Fred may have seen some benefit in relaxing his integrity to collude with Jones or he was over-awed or bullied into agreeing to the prevarication. The reasons will hopefully become more obvious with further research.

    Regarding your grandfather’s war record my understanding is that he enlisted in the AIF as a driver, perhaps becoming an ambulance driver. When the Australian Flying Corps was established the AFC would have had need to bring in other abilities than aircraft pilotage and would have drawn from the AIF volunteers for service in their required fields. My presumption is that he would have transferred to the AFC as a driver and transferred to Point Cook. He would then have embarked with the AFC to Egypt. While there he would have been engaged in that ‘community’ of servicemen and introduced to various areas of technology and skills. From what I can ascertain at the moment he is not listed as a pilot or an observer. Pilots in the AFC were Lieutenants or above, while observers were Second Lieutenants. Sergeants were strictly ground duties only. This should not exclude unofficial flights for some of the more daring. However, I would be pleased if someone with more knowledge of this military area could post on the blog to add information.

    I look forward to further posts from you Janet. I am finding this blog very stimulating.

    Regards

    Ian

  • My great uncle’s exploites are marred by these writers only on the basis,that they do not like some people. We should have a better try at getting the information correct…………..

  • Hi Paul

    Sorry for the delay in responding.

    If only it was that simple. It certainly started off that way with George Augustine Taylor’s dislike of your great uncle and George’s desire to be acknowledged as the first to fly a powered aircraft in Australia. From that point on, as the previous comments show, it went very pear-shaped with a monopoly on published information, poor research, vested interests and parochial attitudes.

    Perhaps we will have the history established and accepted by the bicentennial of Colin Defries’ flight!

  • I have been trying to piece together the sequence of aviation events as they relate to the broader history of the Chetenham Racecourse which later saw the crash of Mawson’s would be Anatarctic plane and so on. Many early flights were public and media events with a financial component (or possibly a sponsorship drive in Mawson’s case), so the event itself rather than the preperation is the media focus. But in the case of the injury to Ewart Lock, (Cheltenham July 1910)there seems to be little evidence of where the pilot HC L”Oste Rolfe came from in an aviation background sense and whether he did any trials on site or elsewhere. AW Jones, Guillaux and the Mawson crew all had a recorded past and future after flying at this venue, but ths guy is harder to track. It would still be a very early flight if it occurred. Any information posted here appreciated.

  • Hi Ray

    There is reason to believe that ‘H C L’Oste Rolfe’ was the ‘stage’ name for Ralph Banks who flew the Wright Model A at Diggers Rest near Melbourne in March 1910 following the resignation of Colin Defries as pilot. Banks had had no training as a pilot and his flight ended in a crash, badly damaging the Wright.

    It is perhaps because of his short association with ‘Harry Houdini’ at Diggers Rest that Banks decided to adopt a ‘stage’ name rather than perform under his own name.

    The Bleriot that was flown by ‘L’Oste Rolfe’ was apparently the one purchased at the same time as the Wright Model A by Defries but which failed to arrive in time for the Sydney “Flying Fortnight”. ‘L’Oste Rolfe’ claimed that he had had experience on both the Wright and the Bleriot and the only one in Australia in early 1910 who could make such a claim with some truth would have been Ralph Banks. We cannot easily rule out a new arrival to Australia who departed from the scene,and history, immediately after the Cheltenham debacle. Although this seems an unlikely scenario.

    I may stand corrected on this but I recall that the ‘C’ in ‘H C L’Oste Rolfe’ stood for Coningsby, which, coincidentally, was Ralph Banks’ middle name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *