• The original Duigan aircraft, although too fragile to go on permanent show, was temporarily erected in the Museum Victoria store. (James Kightly)
    The original Duigan aircraft, although too fragile to go on permanent show, was temporarily erected in the Museum Victoria store. (James Kightly)

David Crotty, curator at Museum Victoria and author of the new book on John Duigan, Australia’s first successful native aviator and aircraft builder, shares some new insights to Duigan’s life and works brought out by the recent anniversary and the book’s publication.

There is a saying that ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Ever since John Duigan built and flew the first successful powered aeroplane in Australia in 1910, it has been his fate to be known as a ‘farm-boy’, a gifted rustic who somehow managed to string together a flying machine from fencing wire and clips from old wool bales.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and such reports greatly annoyed John’s younger brother Reg, who helped build the biplane. In 1960 he told a reporter that his brother was “…a first class engineer…This idea that John was a station boy who fumbled his way into the air is a completely nonsensical one. But I suppose it makes a story.”

Some media reports of the centenary of Duigan’s flight in 2010 prove that myths are
difficult to kill, especially in Australia where the image of the rugged individual from the
bush who ‘has a go’ is ingrained in the historical consciousness.

Although he was born in the Western District of Victoria, John Duigan grew up in Melbourne in an affluent family and attended Brighton Grammar School. He travelled to London in late 1901 to study electrical engineering at Finsbury Technical College.

One of his 1902 classmates was a young Frederick Handley Page, later to become a giant of aircraft manufacture in Britain. After completing his certificate, he obtained a diploma
in motor engineering and driving from the Battersea Polytechnic Institute. John purchased an early motorcycle in London and rode it on long trips, including at least one journey to Bristol.

He was later employed by an electric tramway company near Leeds. After returning to Australia, John resided temporarily with Reg at ‘Spring Plains’ in central Victoria, one of the family properties. It was there that he heard about Wilbur Wright’s 1908 flying demonstrations in France.

Fired with enthusiasm, he built a Wright-type tethered glider, and then in mid 1909 started work on a powered biplane based on a drawing of a Farman-type machine in Sir Hiram Maxim’s 1908 book, Artificial & Natural Flight. A modern reader of this book can only wonder at how it could be used to construct a flying aeroplane as it is useless on the subject of flight controls, about which Maxim proclaimed a complete lack of interest.

The presence of ‘balancing planes’ or primitive ailerons on Duigan’s biplane showed he was keeping up with the latest developments by subscribing to the British journals ‘Flight’ and ‘The Aero’. Reports of Henri Farman’s new Farman III machine appeared regularly in 1909-10 and Duigan was able to establish the essentials of a successful design from reading about the experiences of others.

Duigan’s sound engineering judgement was demonstrated when he left the manufacture of a 20-25 horsepower, air-cooled four-cylinder engine to the J.E. Tilley Engineering Co. in Melbourne. This firm specialised in building small, lightweight ‘JET’ motorcycles. Both John and Reg were keen motorcyclists competing in the Victorian 100 Mile Race riding four-cylinder, air-cooled FN machines.

Parts of the undercarriage were made by E.W. Brown, the local agent for FN motorcycles. The biplane’s wheels are of light motorcycle type. The rest of the machine was built at ‘Spring Plains’ with the exception of the propeller which was contracted out to a Melbourne pattern maker. The risk of failure was lessened by using these experienced tradesmen.

Duigan’s first flight is celebrated as happening on 16 July 1910, but despite leaving the ground on this date, John Duigan never thought of this as a controlled flight. Reg described this stage of testing as “tip-toeing across the paddocks.” After much modification to the engine and airframe, the first fully controlled flight of about 196 yards occurred on the evening of 7 October 1910.

His achievement was unique. None of those who entered the Commonwealth government competition for a military flying machine which closed in June 1910 had even succeeded in building a complete aeroplane or indeed anything that was capable of flight.

John Duigan returned to Britain to gain his aviator’s certificate (No. 211) at Brooklands
in 1912. His encounters with A.V. Roe and later with Manfred von Richthofen are another story.

David Crotty’s new book on Duigan is available from Museum Victoria, and published by the UNSW Press $29.95

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