Who Really Piloted Australia’s First Flight ?

We take a look at the three major aviation feats that preceded Ross Smith's groundbreaking achievement!

Date Published July 25, 2018
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Flight In Australia – 1858 to 1919

The history of manned flight in Australia is one we can be proud of. For instance, there were three major aviation feats preceding the success of Ross Smith in the 1919 Great Air Race.

  • Australia’s first hot air balloon flight was achieved on February 1 1th 1985 at Cremorne Gardens, Richmond VIC. Leading Australian entrepreneur and showman George Coppin undertook a talent finding trip to London. Coppin enticed the experienced balloonists Charles Brown and Joseph Dean to Melbourne. Brown brought his 18-meter high muslin homemade balloon with him for demonstration purposes.

Coppin, known as Australia’s version of Barnum and Baily, leased Richmond’s Cremorne Gardens in 1856 and transformed this area into Melbourne’s premier entertainment tourist destination. Its fantastic assets included an artificial lake where the first white swans imported into Australia lived. This area included flower-laden gardens, a maze, an exotic menagerie, and a 22 metre high version of Mt Vesuvius (which erupted into a spectacular fireworks display every night). It also featured a bowling saloon, grottoes, refreshment bars, a theatre, numerous sideshows, and hot air balloon ascents. For eight years, it was by far Melbourne’s number one entertainment area, and known throughout the world as a true wonder (and wonderland) of the 19th century.

The day before the first ascent, the balloon, now named the “Australasian”: was partially inflated with coal dust at the city of Melbourne’s Gasworks in Melbourne. It took thirty men and a horse to then transport it to Richmond. Two days later on February 1, conditions were ideal and a flight of 25 minutes saw the balloon finally settle in Plenty Road Heidelberg. Dean later wrote, “looking down I saw thousands of upturned faces in every street and road, surrounding the place from which I had taken my departure.”

Several weeks later, when Brown flew the balloon, he was bashed on landing in the suburb of Collingwood by a superstitious mob that thought it was evil for humans to fly.

  • On March 17, 1910 the first (most likely) powered flight in Australia was achieved in Bolivar, South Australia by Fred Custance piloting a Bleriot model Plane. The Bleriot had been imported by local businessman Fred Jones. He shared the task of the getting the aircraft airborne with Custance and his engineer Bill Wittbar.

This first flight, on March 17th, commenced at 5am and was 5 minutes and 25 seconds in duration. However, conflicting reports and a lack of witnesses have raised numerous doubts over the years as to whether the flight actually took place, let alone achieved a 5 minute duration. Today, it is impossible to confirm this flight as Australia’s first. But many authorities do accept Custance’s flight as the true first.

Some believe that the flight by world famed American showman and escapologist, Harry Houdini, aka the Great Houdini (Erik Weisz) was in fact the very first. Houdini’s flight left on the March 18 1910- one day after Custances’s flight.

Houdini had purchased a Voisin Biplane in Hamburg, Germany, which he had shipped to Australia. The Voisin’s first flight was at Digger’s Rest, 30km north of Melbourne. Today, many experts believe that this was Australia’s first flight.

There is no doubt over this flight’s validity, as a crowd of over 40 was in attendance, and reporters who witnessed the flight used stopwatches to confirm its distance of 6 miles.

So, take your pick: Custance or Houdini!

  • On July 16 1914, Frenchmen Maurice Guillaux made flight history when he piloted the first aircraft in Australia and carried mail and freight from Melbourne to Sydney. Stopping at seven towns on route, he took two full days to complete the journey, with a distance of approximately 880km.

In his Bleriot model plane, he carried approximately 2000 pieces of mail, plus a small airfreight consignment of tea and cordial. At the time, this created a world distance record for mail carrying. A week later, on a further flight, he set a new world record for staying aloft for two hours with a passenger.

From 1914 until the outbreak of WWI, little aviation progress was made in Australia, because the government put a stop to any airplane experiments. So we had to wait until 1919 for the Ross Smith flight!

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