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THE AEROGRAM’S CENTENARY OF POWERED FLIGHT IN AUSTRALIA
and attempted a flight on 1 March; only to have a sharp gust of
wind cause his aircraft to dive into the ground after take off,
smashing it completely. He escaped with minor injuries. Ralph
Coningsby Banks was born in England, although some
references list him as an American. Houdini claimed he was
English and, almost certainly having had conversations with him
at Diggers Rest, would probably have been able to distinguish.
Houdini himself observed Banks rise from the ground and travel
about 300 yards, before his crash.
Frederick H Jones
Houdini’s other competitor was a Bleriot monoplane, which had
been purchased by an Adelaide businessman, Fred Jones. It is
this chapter, in our deliberations as to who flew first, that is
perhaps the most contentious with Jones and his associates,
Bill Wittber and Fred Custance all claiming to have made brief
flights on the Blériot.
Jones had visited Europe and England in the hope of finding an
aircraft capable of being demonstrated and sold in Australia.
While he was in England, the French flier, Louis Blériot had
flown from Sangatte to Dover, creating a storm of controversy
about the vulnerability of England to an armada of flying
machines and gaining for himself and his aircraft a great
measure of excellent publicity. (Aerogram June 2009) Jones
recognised the achievement of Blériot and his aircraft and paid
£1,000 in advance for a Bleriot type XI monoplane, number 37,
powered by a 24hp Anzani rotary engine. This aircraft, an
advanced type for the time, employed primary flight controls,
which would be recognisable today. A control column was used
with a series of levers and cranks to “warp” or alter the shape
of the wing; a rudder bar allowed the aircraft to veer right or
left and a forward or rearward movement of control column
would cause the nose to rise or fall.
Carl Wilhelm Wittber
The Blériot arrived in South Australia and Jones engaged an
engineer, Bill Wittber, to assemble and rig the aircraft. Wittber
was a ship’s engineer, was a foreman at Eyes & Crowle in
Adelaide, and his abilities and his interest in aviation, whetted
by such magazines as Flight, made him an excellent choice for
the job. Assisted by Custance, the machine was assembled
and displayed in John Martin’s store in Rundle
Frederick Cyril Custance
Fred Custance was born in Essex, England on 16 May 1880.
He came to Australia with his family in 1906. Engaged as a
motor engineer with Vivian Lewis, who were Talbot agents, he
volunteered to assist Jones with his Blériot in his spare time
and was introduced to Wittber.
After its display in Adelaide, Jones moved the Blériot to Bolivar;
a country town outside Adelaide, where the first attempts at
flying it were to be made. At this point, none of those involved
had ever flown an aircraft and it is believed that Jones had no
intention of flying the aircraft – that responsibility being left to
Wittber and Custance. The Blériot manual was consulted
carefully and on 13 March, the aircraft was run around the
paddock with Wittber at the controls. The machine struck a
tussock, lurched into the air and after about 15 metres, landed.
Whilst it was only a short distance and Wittber never claimed it
as a flight, the aircraft landed without damage. On the morning
of 17 March 1910, Custance is believed to have taxied the
aircraft around the same paddock several times. It is claimed
that he later was able to make a successful take-off and
achieved a short flight circling the paddock, however that flight
was unwitnessed, and claimed to have occurred at 5am in the
morning, prior to sunrise.
Another attempt in front of witnesses resulted in the aircraft
apparently stalling and crashing, causing damage to the
propeller, engine, undercarriage and wheels. Subsequently, it
was returned to Adelaide for repairs and was later destroyed by
fire while in storage that winter.
Much consideration has in recent years been given to facts
surrounding these attempts. At 5am Custance would have been
facing an attempt in complete darkness or barely first light. The
Blériot instructions amount to two typed pages comprising
assembly, starting up and some brief pilot’s notes and Jones
was to become embroiled in a sensation concerning a serious
injury to a young boy losing the lower part of his arm by the
propeller of a Blériot machine owned by him.
The machine in question was
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