Home' Aerogram : Aerogram 2010 1 March Contents Aerogram March 2010
THE AEROGRAM’S CENTENARY OF POWERED FLIGHT IN AUSTRALIA
This was good enough for the Aerial League, which later
presented him with a garish trophy commemorating the “First
Aerial Flight in Australia”. The date on the trophy is wrong:
March 16, 1910. An innocent mistake? Or did Houdini
deliberately fudge it, as he had details of his birth. With his
child-like spelling, Houdini wrote to a friend: “I have been very
bisy trying to win the Australian Prize, and I’m pleased to
inform you the trophy is MINE!!!”
But did he deserve it?
Before dawn on March 17, a 20-year-old car racer named
Fred Custance made a flight in a Blériot monoplane at Bolivar,
near Adelaide. He was above ground for just under 51/2
minutes and covered five kilometres. On another flight the
same morning, Custance crashed his machine. Perhaps it was
this that spoiled his claim, or the fact that he was not a trained
pilot. Unlike Houdini, he did not have a photographer and an
assembly of witnesses on hand. Unlike Houdini, distance did
not appreciate that what you do can matter less than the
number of people who know about it.
Did Houdini know about Custance on March 18? That is
unclear. There are clues that suggest he did, certainly later. In
a letter about his recognition as the first Australian aviator, he
includes the cryptic line (in French): “I am, uncontestably, the
first magician who flies.” As if to enhance his credentials as a
pilot, Houdini made many more flights: in Diggers Rest on
March 19 and again the following day - by which time cars
were ferrying spectators from Melbourne - and at Sydney’s
Rosehill racecourse in April.
But he never made good a boast made after his March 18
flights: “With just a little more practice, I will be able to fly over
Melbourne, and I expect to astonish the people by doing so
one day.” He did astonish people until his death – from
peritonitis, in 1926 – but only on stage, not in the skies.
By 1911 he had lost interest in aviation – it was a passing fad,
like his later flirtation with Hollywood. Yet he was sure he would
always be remembered as a pioneer in aviation. Always? Not
really. Today, 100 years after he rattled over the Diggers Rest
paddocks, the name Houdini is synonymous with escapes, not
flight. Aviation histories variously credit Custance and Houdini
as having the strongest claims to Australia’s first controlled
powered flight. Mention is also made of a Colin Defries, who
covered 105 metres no more than four metres above the
ground in Sydney in December 1909.
In Diggers Rest, with jets from the nearby international airport
passing overhead, two modest monuments with plaques
commemorate “Australia’s first officially recorded controlled
powered flight. It was made by Harry Houdini on March 18,
1910.” One monument is next to a toilet block near the railway
There’s more. Here, past rows of neat brick houses: Houdini
Drive. The street sign even has a picture of a biplane, although
it doesn’t look much like the Voisin. It is only a short trip from
here to the flat paddocks where Harry briefly soared.
Back in the main street, the general store has posters of
footballers, not the one time Sensation of Great Britain,
America and all Europe. But it was near here that, 100 years
ago, the man who started life as Erik Weisz in Budapest,
became Ehrich Weiss, and finally was Harry Houdini, fulfilled a
claim he first made as a child.
He made his performing debut aged nine, wearing red woolen
stockings and imitating a trapeze artist he had seen in a circus.
His stage name: Ehrich – the Prince of the Air.
Houdini–Centenary Air Show
An event held at Melton Airfield on 20 March, organised by Glyn Butchard
Perfect flying weather
greeted visitors to the
Centenary Air Show held at
Melton Airfield with a wide
variety of aircraft from, or
depicting, all eras of military
and civilian aviation.
Organiser Glyn Butchard said
it had been two years’ work
to pull the event together.
The RAAF Museum was
represented by a display
from the Sopwith Pup and
Linsay McKee’s Bird Dog.
Modelers were represented
too, with Gary Sunderland
(Aerogram June 2010, p20)
attempting to fly his model
Houdini Voisin. Unfortunately,
windy conditions and a short
time window made it
impossible for the model to
get off the ground. Ed.
Sign of the
Gary Sunderland with his model Voisin
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