On this day: birth of an aviation pioneer

By Natalie Muller 7 November 2013
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John Duigan, the first to design, build and fly an Australian- made plane, was born on May 31, 1882.

MANY OUTSIDE THE AVIATION community have not heard his name, but John Duigan is considered a pioneer in the flying world.

What is unusual about John’s story is that he managed to build a practical aircraft in a shed on his parents’ 10,000-acre property in central Victoria at a time when massive developments in aviation were taking place on the other side of the world.

John had little help, other than some text books, aviation journals and the technical skills of his younger brother Reginald Charles. He had never even physically seen a plane; yet, he would come to play an instrumental role in shaping Australia’s aviation history. In 1910, at the age of 28, he became the first person to build and fly an Australian-made plane.

Up until this point, only imported planes had been flown in Australia. One of the most notable was a French Voisin plane, flown by the magician Harry Houdini at Digger’s Rest in March 1910. So while John didn’t actually invent anything, he did manage to achieve what no other Australian had achieved before.

David Crotty, author of A Flying Life and curator of engineering and transport at Museum Victoria, describes the Duigan bi-plane as a “work of practical genius”. “John was a long way ahead of his contemporaries and the fact that he was building it on this isolated property made it all the more remarkable,” he says.

First flight

At age 20, John moved to London to study. He wanted a practical education and when he returned to Melbourne six years later, as a trained electrical engineer, he immediately found work at an engineering firm. At the time, he had no apparent interest in flying, but it was a postcard from a friend in London, describing the Wright brothers’ flights, that sparked his curiosity.

Gwynne Duigan, John’s niece-in-law, manages the Duigan Family Archives. Now in her 90s, she remembers the men of the family talking non-stop about planes and motor cars. “They were absolutely obsessed with technical stuff; it was conversation to drive you mad,” she says.

John and Reg built the frame of the Duigan plane from red pine and mountain ash timber, and after several months of rigorous tests on the family property, there was lift off. The short flight John achieved on 16 July 1910, in front of six witnesses, is recorded as the first powered, controlled flight of an Australian-made aeroplane. The Wright brothers had made their first flight almost seven years earlier in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

In 1962, Terry Duigan, John’s nephew, described him as a “pioneer by chance”. “Opportunity coincided with his training and circumstances, but that in no way detracted from his achievement,” he says. “He produced an extraordinary sensible aeroplane at a time when, one might say without being flippant, all those in existence had some basically silly features.”

John flew his plane for the last time in May 1911 in front of a large crowd at the Bendigo Racecourse, before deciding to return to England and learn more about flight. The second plane the Duigan brothers built was also their last. John had brought an engine back from England to construct the craft, but this time it crashed, leaving him battered and bruised. He married Kathleen Corney, a nurse, shortly afterwards.

The Duigan aeroplane flying over the Bendigo Racecourse in May, 1911. (Credit: Duigan Family Archives)

A Flying Life

After the crash, John gave up flying.

“I was always told that it was his mother who made them promise to give up flying – she had a lot of command,” remembers Gwynne. “It was dangerous and a lot of flyers lost their lives.”

But when World War I broke out, John hopped back in the pilot’s seat and joined the Australian Flying Corps. He was again confronted with the dangers of flying when his plane was targeted in a vicious attack by four enemy aircraft. John was shot in the shoulder, arm and leg, and his plane caught fire, but he still managed to land and get out alive with his unconscious observer and the valuable photographic plates. For this, he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery.

“Reading between the lines, it may have been for psychological reasons that he didn’t go back to flying,” says Gwynne.

John didn’t fly again after the war and his health deteriorated as he grew older. He and Kathleen retired to live in Ringwood and he died there on 11 June, 1951, at age 69.

Gwynne believes John’s achievements would have been more widely celebrated had the family lived in Europe or America.

“The brothers should be given more credit. This is Australian history and it was tremendously important what they did,” she says. “The circumstances were very different in Europe where you could go and see what was happening. They were all the way out here, no wireless, no internet, and probably no telephone.”

David says John never sought fame or publicity. “He knew some of the key figures pretty well while he was in London, so I’m sure he could have stayed on and made a career of it if he had wanted to, but I got the impression he just wanted to work for himself. He wasn’t in it to make money.”

On 28 May, 1960 the John Duigan memorial, designed by his nephew Terry, was unveiled near the site of his first flight in Mia Mia, central Victoria.

In 2010, a team of retired aeroplane enthusiasts built a replica of the Duigan plane to celebrate the centenary anniversary of the first flight.