Mar 182012

Escapologist Harry Houdini flew into Australian aviation history during his tour downunder in 1910.

He brought with him from Europe a biplane built by the French aviation pioneer Gabriel Voisin.

An ungainly-looking machine with a protruding nose, fabric-covered wings and a boxy kite-like tail, it flew capably enough for Houdini to be credited with making the first controlled, powered flight of an airplane in Australia.

The Argus newspaper reported the dramatic events that took place at Diggers Rest outside Melbourne on this day 18 March 1910:

“Then Houdini took the seat, and was ready for the first flight. “Un, deux, trois,” counted Brassac as he twisted the 8ft propeller to start the engine. “G-r-r-r-r,” went the propeller as it bit madly through the air. A quick touch by the aviator to the engine-clutch at his side set the machine rolling, and Houdini was off at a speed which quickly rose to over 30 miles an hour. When he had travelled 40 or 50 yards he raised the elevating planes, and the great machine leapt into the air as a bird springs into flight. For one flashing moment Houdini wondered—then realised that at last he was aloft.

He was only trying his wings, and went to no great height. Sweeping round in a comparatively narrow circle, he was back to earth within a minute. The bi-plane, which measures 33 ft. fore and aft, and the same distance across the main plane, looked like a huge white bird as it sailed gracefully round. The resemblance was heightened by the appearance of the fore-wheels, which looked like talons tucked up for flight, while the elevating planes and guard-wheel thrust out in front gave the rough impression of a beak. The descent was perfect. Sliding down in a series of inclined planes by manipulation of the elevating gear, Houdini brought the bi-plane to ground with scarcely a jar.

Houdini Flight on Film

Harry Houdini made several flights in Australia during 1910, enabling his achievements to be documented on film.

The second flight was made with a confidence heighted by the first success. The “bird-man” made a complete detour of the paddock, covering between one and two miles in his flight. As before, he came down in easy, graceful fashion, but made a slight mistake on landing. At the end of the last “slide” he touched earth, but, for the moment, omitted to straighten the elevating planes which had been depressed to bring him down. Here the great value of the guard wheel was illustrated. It is the extreme tilt of the machine’s nose, and when the plane is at rest is thrust out in front at a height of about 7ft. from the ground. When the machine dives obliquely to earth the guard-wheel is the first point of contact. On this occasion the plane ran along the ground on its nose, with the tail-plane in the air, for some little distance. Houdini moved in his seat, half-ready to throw himself clear of the murderous metal propeller, which screamed hoarsely behind him as it made its 1,200 revolutions per minute. With a sub-conscious movement he straightened the planes, and the machine, on “all fours,” was quickly pulled up by his assistants.

The third flight lasted 3½ min., and was unmarred by any fault. Houdini swept boldly away from the flying field, confident of his control of the plane, and passing over rocky rises and stone fences, described a great circle, which was, at the lowest estimate, well over two miles. The machine, in rounding curves, leaned over, as one sees a seagull lean sideways to the wind, but the aviator felt that he was no longer a “fledgling,” and, the curve negotiated, straightened the plane with a turn of the wheel. The descent was faultless, and the plane came to rest within 20ft of the starting point, where the little knoll of witnesses were standing.

“As soon as I was up, all my muscles relaxed, and I sat back, feeling a sense of ease. Freedom and exhilaration, that’s what it is. O! she’s great. I know what it is to fly in real earnest. She’s like a swan. She’s a dandy. I can fly.”

Issued in 2010, the Australian Centenary of Flight 1oz silver proof coin is a superb tribute to Harry Houdini’s historic achievement at Diggers Rest on 18 March 1910.


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