Main content area

Our first aviators

BACK TO ALL STORIES

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.

About this item: 

1909

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. 

Aeroplanes, ca. 1914-1970
ca. 1914-1970
Digital ID: 
a1383001
View collection item detail
About this item: 

1909

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. 

Album 52: Photographs of the Allen family, November - December, 1909
November - December, 1909
Digital ID: 
a1373038
View collection item detail
About this item: 

1910

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. 

Houdini airborne in his Voisin at Diggers Rest, March 1910 / photograph by Marc Pourpe
March 1910
Pourpe, Marc
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a928626
About this item: 

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. 

Australian Built, twenty years ago : 20 h.p. biplane designed, built and flown in 1910 by Mr. John Robertson Duigan, of Terang, Vic. ...
3 May, 1911 (published 31 January, 1930)
Digital ID: 
a928619
View collection item detail
About this item: 

1911

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. 

Hart in his Bristol biplane at Penrith, ca. 1912
1912
Digital ID: 
a928593
View collection item detail
About this item: 

1911

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.

Collection of photographs of the Tremain family, including L.J.R. Jones' aeroplane of 1911, ca. 1878-1935
1911
Digital ID: 
a128089
View collection item detail
J.J. Hammond's first flight in Sydney, 1911

1911

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.

J.J. Hammond's first flight in Sydney, 1911
About this item: 

1914

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.

Maurice Farman Hydro-Aeroplane (Hydroplane) imported by Lebbeus Hordern, flown by Guillaux, 1914
2003 (copy of 1914 nitrate photonegatives)
Sam Hood
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a128591
About this item: 

1914

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.

Searcy albums volume 8
1914
Alfred Searcy
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1411002
About this item: 

1919

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.

Inaugural flight from the UK to Australia, by Captain Ross Smith in 1919
1919
Digital ID: 
a1376003
View collection item detail
About this item: 

1919

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."

Sir Hudson Fysh - postcard: Capt. H. Butler by monoplane over St Vincent Gulf, thence by Commonwealth Mail, 1919
1919
Digital ID: 
a1378002
View collection item detail

Aviation in Australia is made possible through a partnership with Qantas.