In 1909, six years after the Wright Brothers' flights in America, the Commonwealth Government offered a £5,000 prize for the first Australian 'Flying Machine...suitable for Military purposes.'
The first Australian to make a 'heavier than air' flight was George A. Taylor who made a series of glider flights at Narrabeen on 5 December 1909. Later that month, Colin Defries made several attempts to become airborne at Victoria Park Racecourse, using an imported Wright Biplane and a Blériot, with varying degrees of success.
By 1910, other aviators with imported flying machines strove to make the first powered flight in Australia. Several claimed success, although Ehrich Weiss, better known as escapologist Harry Houdini, is credited with the first controlled flight, at Diggers Rest, Victoria on 18 March 1910.
The first Australian-made aircraft was designed and built by John Duigan, who completed a 7 metre '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'
The first decade of flight
Explore the adventures of Australia's first aviators. Learn about early attempts prior to Houdini's first controlled flight, how William Hart became Australia's first qualified pilot, and how Maurice Guillaux introduced a new service to Australian aviation.
George Taylor flying his glider at Narrabeen Beach, December 1909. In total, 29 flights were made in 10-15 knot winds by Taylor, Edward Hallstrom, Charles Schultz, Emma Schultz and Florence Taylor. In later experiments Taylor's glider soared against the wind, turned around and returned above the starting point.
In December 1909, Colin Defries attempted to become airborne at Victoria Park Raceway using an imported Wright Biplane and a Bleriot. Wright Biplane: 4 Dec, three abortive attempts, damaging the undercarriage; 9 Dec, flew 100m. Bleriot: 18 Dec, gained a height of 5M, but crashed, ending his efforts.
Ehrich Weiss (better known as escapologist Harry Houdini), made Australia's first recognised flight in a Voisin biplane at Diggers Rest, Victoria, 18 March 1910. Houdini made three flights that day, the last covering 3km. He later made two flights in Sydney at Rosehill Racecourse, 18 April 1910.
John Duigan designed and built the first Australian aircraft to fly, based on a Farman biplane and powered by a four cylinder engine. On 16 July 1910, Duigan made a 7m hop at Spring Plains estate near Mia Mia, Victoria. By 1911, he had flown 60 times, as far as 800m and at 20m altitude.
William Ewart Hart bought one of Joseph Hammond's Boxkites in September 1911 and received instruction from Hammond's assistant L. F. McDonald. By 16 November, he was competent enough to qualify as a pilot, obtaining the first Aviator's Certificate from the Aerial League of Australia.
L. R. J. (Jack) Jones built his first engine in 1907 and his first aircraft in 1909 with a steam turbine as a power plant. On 20 Feb 1911, Jones transported a new steam driven machine to Penrith, where it lifted off and crashed. Undeterred, Jones later constructed Australia's first metal plane, the Wonga, in 1930.
Spectators at Ascot Racecourse for Hammond's last flight, 5 May 1911, were surprised as he flew north across the heads, through the harbour as far as Central Station and across to Botany in 40 minutes. To demonstrate the use of planes during war he and Frank Coles threw flour bombs at the HMS Powerful.
In 1914, Lebbeus Hordern imported two hydro-aeroplanes, a Maurice Farman and a Curtiss and employed Maurice Guillaux to teach him how to fly. On 5 June, Guillaux set a new altitude record for water planes at 3150m. Hordern never learnt to fly and donated both to the Army at the outbreak of World War 1.
Frenchman Maurice Guillaux arrived in Sydney in April 1914 with a Bleriot aeroplane. He made several flights in Sydney and Newcastle, including the first "loop-the-loop" in Australia. On 2 May 1914, Guillaux performed above 60,000 spectators at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney.
Ross and Keith Smith set out for Australia from Hounslow in a Vickers Vimy MK IV on 12 November 1919. They reached Darwin 28 days later on December 10, claiming the prize of 10 000 pounds for being the first Australians to fly from England to Australia in less than 30 days.
Returning from World War I, Capt. Harry Butler flew airmail from Adelaide to Minlaton in a Bristol M. 1C, Red Devil.
Souvenir postcards bore the inscription "The plane was great in War but it will be greater in Peace. This little souvenir from the Clouds is the beginning of a new era in mail and passenger transport. So keep your eye on the Aeroplane."