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First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 4

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Souvenir_BookletImage courtesy of John Scott, 2009

Today marks the Centenary of Colin Defries’s historic flight in his Wright Model A ‘The Stella’ at Victoria Park Racecourse on 9th December 1909. To recognise this, here is my fourth and final instalment of the saga…

Armistice in the “Aviation History Wars”

The 1988 bicentennial project of the Civil Aviation Authority, an authoritative chronology of Australian aviation history, researched and produced by two well-respected aviation historians, Neville Parnell and Trevor Boughton, was an opportunity to ‘blow away the fog’ and correct past errors, but the opportunity was lost. In their defence, the task they undertook was monumental and the work is a vital reference for researchers but, like all such works, errors will always occur. In dealing with the evidence relating to Defries, Custance and Houdini, they have tried to let the past speak for itself and the implication is that Houdini was the first to make a powered flight in Australia because the Aerial League of Australia gave Houdini a trophy and “…the flights were certified in writing by nine observers, and claimed as the first in Australia…”. There is no argument that Houdini flew the wings off Defries. Houdini had made three flights on March 18th, 1910 from 1 to 3.5 minutes duration, with a circling flight included. They were observed, photographed and filmed. Houdini was the consummate showman!

However, it has generally become acknowledged that the definition of flight established by the Gorell Committee on behalf of the Aero Club of Great Britain dictates the acceptance of a flight or its rejection. The definition of flight approved by the Gorell Committee states: “Free flight in an aeroplane occurs when the machine, having left the ground, is maintained in the air by its own power on a level or upward path for a distance beyond that over which gravity and air resistance would sustain it”. There is no requirement for lateral control or return to the point of take off. Based on this definition, is there any doubt that Defries flew?

At the moment all is quiet. However, it is expected that the ‘battle’ will flare anew as it did in England in 1958 when the supporters of Alliott Verdon-Roe took issue with the decision of the Gorell Committee and the supporters of Samuel Franklin Cody who was given the credit for the first powered flight in Great Britain. 1958 was the 50th anniversary of Cody’s and Roe’s flights. When the guns fell silent, Cody remained victorious. I expect the same for Defries.

* I am grateful to my colleague in the Aviation Historical Society of Australia (NSW), John Scott, who has researched this chapter of Australian aviation extensively and allowed me to use his work freely in talks and publications. John has published his work in “Loops and Landings”, his monthly contribution to the newsletter of the Society. I have used his battle metaphor that headed his series on the first flight controversy – “The Looming Australian Aviation History Wars” – as an entirely appropriate mechanism to contextualise the parochial feeling evoked by the controversy. Even so, I take full responsibility for all that is written above.

First Powered Flight in Australia- Episode 1

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George Augustine Taylor in flight

George and Florence Taylor, the first untethered heavier-than-air flights

On December 5, 1909 George Augustine Taylor became the first man in Australia to fly an untethered heavier-than-air craft. On this day he made several flights on Narrabeen beach, north of Sydney, with the longest glide reported as 110 yards (100.6 metres). George’s wife, Florence, also had a fly in the Voisin-inspired biplane glider with its Hargrave box-kite tail, although the stout gentlemen attending the glider held on to the tethers attached to the wing tips lest she fell into the ocean. Even with this attachment, her flight was recorded as 90 yards (82.3 metres) in length and she could rightly claim to be the first woman to pilot a heavier-than-air craft in Australia.

About a hundred people came to watch the aerial antics of the small group of people, friends and associates of George and Florence Taylor, as they took their turn to fly along the beach.

GTaylorPortraitImage courtesy of ADB Online

George was born in August, 1872 at his parent’s home and fruit shop in King Street, Sydney. He was the second of nine children born to George and Annie Maria Taylor. George Augustine’s younger brother, Vincent Patrick, achieved international fame as “Captain Penfold“, a balloonist. George achieved local fame in the building trade and edited a magazine called “Building”, the journal of the Master Builders Association. Taylor was also an artist, writer, publisher and inventor.

At an early age, he developed an interest in aeronautics; flying kites in the domain and eagerly following the work of Lawrence Hargrave, the pioneer of aeronautics in Australia. At the age of 10, he wrote an essay at school titled “The future of the flying machine in Australia’s history”. Later, George progressed to flying model aeroplanes powered by rubber bands. From experiments with these models he learned the basics of aeronautics.


Collection, Powerhouse Museum

Model of Voisin type glider flown at Narrabeen by George Augustine Taylor, December 5, 1909

In April 1909, George formed The Aerial League of Australia and later that year opened the first aeroplane factory in Australia at Surry Hills in Sydney. As well as construction of Hargrave box-kites, Cody war kites and the Voisin-type glider that was used for the first untethered flights, Taylor was also having his powered aeroplane constructed there.

Stay tuned for the next episode on Colin Defries and the first powered flight in Australia!