Beyond Flights of Fancy: Australia's Aviation History

Updated: Oct 28

✦ Aviation has come a long way. Now we get onboard Qantas Airways like it's the most natural thing in the world to be inside the belly of a 'metal flying bird'.

Did you ever wonder why children are so fascinated by planes? When they see one in the sky they all stop what they're doing and look up, transfixed. We all share this sense of wonder, of how in the world can a bunch of humans stay up in the air for a long enough time to get from one place to another? Aviation was made possible because several people in history dared to dream, and they made a fantasy a reality.

It started with balloons

Dean, Gale and L'Estrange were Australia's first balloonists. Dean succeeded in 1858 with his gas-filled balloon, The Australasian which flew a distance of 30km with two people in it. Gale flew in his balloon The Young Australian in 1869. L'Estrange took to the skies in 1881 and his balloon had an unfortunate accident striking a building which ignited the leaking gas.

Gas balloon displayed at the royal Agricultural Showgrounds, Sydney, January 1901, photographed by WH Maguire. Photo: State Library NSW
Gas balloon displayed at the royal Agricultural Showgrounds, Sydney, January 1901, photographed by WH Maguire. Photo: State Library NSW

Fun Fact: Did you know that Hungarian-American escapologist Harry Houdini made Australia's first controlled flight in 1910?

The first Australian to make a series of glider flights was George A. Taylor in 1909. By 1910, other aviators had made attempts with their own flying machines. What is interesting is Houdini was credited with the first controlled flight at Diggers Rest, Victoria on 18 March 1910! Who would have thought that Houdini's magic went beyond just escaping from chains and trunks!

23 February 1911 is an important date because that's when we had Australia's first aircraft passenger, Frank Coles, get on board aviator Joseph Hammond's aircraft. Hammond later took Australia's first paying passenger one month later on a 19km flight.

November 1911 saw Australia's first qualified pilot in William Hart, who, incidentally, was also a dentist.

Aviation continued to progress until Ross and Keith Smith made the first flight between England and Australia in 1919.

Raising the bar

Progress is an inevitable part of human history, and balloons, kites, gliders were no longer challenging enough. In 1919, the Commonwealth Government announced a prize of £10,000 for the first Australian to fly from England to Australia in an attempt to boost local aerial activity.

The prize was claimed by Ross and Keith Smith. They landed in Dyarwin, NT, clocking nearly 136 hours of flying time spread out over 28 days.

Goble and McIntyre were the next to raise the bar. In 1924, they completed the first aerial circumnavigation of Australia. They took 44 days to fly around Australia. It was an even greater feat they managed to do this because they were pummelled by bad weather and even mechanical failure.

By 1927, Charles Kingsford Smith and Chalres Ulm did the same circumnavigation in only 10 days.

In 1928, Bert Hinkler went on the first solo flight to Australia from Croydon, England. He arrived in Darwin on 28 February 1928 after 128 hours of flying time.

It's a bird, it's a plane

Through Australia's aviation history, tribute must also go to the incredible machines that the pilots flew in.