Harry Houdini’s little-known role in Australian aviation history

Marc Pourpe / Collection of State Library of NSW

Harry Houdini is known as a famous escapologist but did you know he was also fascinated with aviation and made the first powered flight over Australia?

Born in 1874, Houdini rose to fame at the turn of the century performing improbable escapes from jails, handcuffs and chains across the United States and Europe. 

But in 1909, six years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Houdini was bitten by the aviation bug. 

Ehrich Weiss (Houdini’s real name) bought a 60 horsepower Voisin biplane for $5000 and first flew it in Germany. He decided to transport it to Australia in the hope of entering the record books. 

In 1909, the Australian government had offered a prize for the first Australian-made flying machine suitable for military purposes. 

While there weren’t many Australian-designed flyers around at the time, there were several aviators who had imported flying machines, hoping to make the first controlled, powered flight in the country. Houdini was among these aviators with his French-made biplane.

On March 18, 1910, watched by onlookers and reporters, Houdini carried out three flights in his Voisin biplane at Diggers Rest, about 33 kilometers north-west of Melbourne in the state of Victoria. The last of these lasted about 3.5 minutes and covered 3 kilometers. 

The flight was certified and acknowledged as the first powered flight over Australian soil, beating a rival claim by Fred Custance, who said he had carried out a flight the previous day, but had no witnesses, unlike Houdini.

According to the website thegreatharryhoudini.com, the escapologist said after he took off, he first thought he was in a tree, before realizing he was flying. 

“The funny thing was that as soon as I was aloft, all the tension and strain left me. 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,” the website quotes him as saying.

Houdini reportedly made 18 flights in Australia, and then had the Voisin shipped back to Britain. However, despite planning to fly the plane as part of his tour as a publicity stunt, he never flew it again.  


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