Warbirds Online will be commemorating the Centenary of WW1 over the next 4 years and we will document through regular features, the history and progress of Military Aviation during the war and Australia’s part in it, particularly the Australian Flying Corps (AFC).
Australia has a unique place in the history of Aviation going back to the experiments of Lawrence Hargraves at Stanwell Park in the 1890’s through to his death in 1915, sadly just two month following the death of his only son Geoffrey at Gallipoli as part of the Australian Forces. Hargraves influenced many later Aviators and inventors and was fundamental to the work of many later Aviation pioneers.
Australia thus had a place at the beginning of powered flight and this continued into the advent of Military Aviation. On 19th March 1910 the first powered flight was said to have occurred in Australia carried out by the Hungarian born and American based Harry Houdini probably better remembered as an illusionist than an Aviator. The flight occurred in Victoria about 30 Km from Melbourne. This was some 8 years after the Wright brothers had flown in the USA however it was still very significant to the story and development of Australian Aviation. There has to be a first and this was ours. The event and the fact that it was carried out by such a prominent person fostered great interest in flying in our far flung colony. Houdini was not a great aviator; his flights had failed for some time before he succeeded, however it was exciting to the man in the street. However there is another school of thought that the Houdini flight was not the first. Wing Commander Harry Cobby wrote in Aircraft in March 1938 that “the first aeroplane flight in the Southern Hemisphere was made on December 9, 1909 by Mr Colin Defries, a Londoner, at Victoria Park Racecourse, Sydney, in a Wilbur Wright aeroplane”. Colin Defries was a trained pilot, having learnt to fly in Cannes, France. We may never know the exact details, but these were some of the first efforts in Australian aviation.
Australia was at this time a new country, only 7 years old and we still looked to the “mother country” for help and guidance as well as offering support and allegiance. This influence over Australia naturally filtered through to the Military forces, even as early as 1910. Louis Bleriot’s 1909 flight across the English Channel had not gone unnoticed by the powers that be in the British Forces and by transference Australian Military and Aviation Proponents. In Sydney in 1910 at a Services Club Institution a paper was delivered which was strangely prophetic called “The Air Age and its Military Significance”. This paper predicted with uncanny accuracy the advent of aerial warfare and wireless communication technology in supplying the military with intelligence and asked many questions about how Military aviation could be utilized in the future. This was at a time when in Australia and for that matter Great Britain had no formal Military Aviation component.
The Aerial league of Australia, who was a group of influential albeit amateur Aviation enthusiasts, proposed that Australia would ignore the future of Military Aviation at its peril. The group agitated long and hard to promote their cause even insisting that to ignore the issue was to be a traitor!
The League continued to promote the cause and in 1911 presented a proposal to the Australian Minister for Defence called “a proposal for the Establishment of a Commonwealth Aviation School and Corps” within the Australian Army. Despite being laden with a degree of self-interest the proposal had a strong resonance with the then Government and just as significantly, within the Army.
Such was the impact of the Aerial League document and the actions being taken in Great Britain to establish within the Army a Royal Flying Corps that in 1911 a strong tide of opinion within the Australian Army was in favor of establishing an Australian Flying Corps (AFC). This impetus was further enhanced in 1911, at the Imperial Conference held in London where it was decided that aviation should be developed by the various national armed forces of the British Empire. Australia became the first (and as it turned out the only) member of the Empire to follow this policy. At the conclusion of 1911 there were tangible signs of the AFC coming into being with the advertising for Pilots and Mechanics and these were appointed throughout 1912. In the meantime work was also commenced on obtaining suitable aircraft – sourced as always from the mother country with input from the British Army.
Despite the best of intentions the Aerial league of Australia were ignored in this process as was their suggestion of establishing the Central Flying School in Queensland. Instead after a faltering process it was eventually decided to establish the Central Flying School at a place on Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne called Point Cook. This then was the context in which the genesis of the AFC and later the RAAF came into being.
Warbirds Online in the coming months and years will provide restoration updates on WW1 era aircraft and document the rapid and sometimes painful evolution of our Air Forces in the Great War. It is a story of courage and valor that at times seems almost miraculous.
© John Parker 2014