Australia’s Aviation Firsts


This week Australia’s own Qantas Airlines set a speed record for its inaugural non-stop 787 flight from Perth to Rome, with the first flight touching down in just 15 hours and 34 minutes.

Let’s have a look at some more Australian aviation firsts:

Australia’s first balloon flight

Fifty years before aeroplanes in Australia, our first successful hot air balloon or “lighter than air” aircraft, took off from Richmond, Melbourne, on the 1st of February 1858, marking the start of aviation in this country.

The first balloon was named Australasian, made from muslin, and reached 18 metres in height. A wealthy local businessman, Mr George Coppin, sponsored experienced balloonists Charles Brown and Joseph Dean of London to come to Melbourne and fly his balloon. The resulting flight lasted 25 minutes. On the day of the flight, the balloonists pumped up the balloon with coal gas, after which it became airborne over Cremorne Gardens in Richmond.

The locals thought that flight was evil and were filled with superstition when they saw the craft flying above.

First intentional parachute jump

On Saturday, 8 December 1888, Mt J.T Williams of Sydney made the first-ever descent by parachute in Australia. Mr Williams was a watchmaker of Castlereagh Street, Sydney.

Mr Williams was said to be a quiet, unassuming man. He was 33 years old at the time, and apart from being regarded as an expert watchmaker, he was also a better-than-average gymnast.

He had been experimenting privately with parachutes and wanted to prove that a parachute could provide pilots with a means of escape from an aircraft in the same way a life raft could rescue a sailor at sea. Due to the success of the trials, he decided to make a public ascent by hot air balloon from the Ashfield Recreation Ground on the 12th of February 1890. 

He got into trouble as it flew over Kogarah towards the ocean, and Williams decided to bail out. He estimates he fell to earth from 20,000 feet [more than six kilometres] and landed in the water near ‘Matterson’s sea-breeze Hotel’ at Blakehurst. While seriously bruised, he claims the parachute saved his life. The balloon featured patented modifications of his design. The balloon eventually came to earth in Robinson’s paddock near Carlton Station.

First balloon descent by a woman

The first balloon descent by a woman in Australia was made at the Newcastle, New South Wales, racecourse on Saturday 8 February 1890 by a member of an American acrobatic company.

Valerie Van Tassell was one of two sisters in the company who both jumped during their tour of Australia. Their name was Freitas, but they performed under the name Van Tassell.

Dangling from a trapeze suspended from a hot air balloon Gloria, or her sister Valerie, would execute several tricks as the balloon soared skywards. Once they reached a sufficient height, the women would release themselves from the balloon and parachute back to earth.   

The young ladies caused controversy everywhere they went as they dressed in a risqué fashion for the times.

First Female Pilot of a major airline

Captain Deborah Jane Lawrie was the first female airline pilot for a major airline in Australia. She commenced her flying training at 16, and she is regarded as a trailblazer by all those women who have followed her lead. However, it took her many years of rejections and a grand battle in the Sex Discrimination Commission before Ansett finally took her on as a pilot.

When Deborah Lawrie finally took the controls of her first flight for Ansett Airlines in 1980, one male passenger demanded to be let off the plane when he heard a woman’s voice coming over the P.A.

She calmly instructed the crew to escort the complaining passenger up to the flight deck, where he watched her in action and was suitably impressed with her efficient flying manner.  He stopped complaining and returned to his seat.

Following her retirement from flying international flights:

• 2008 – Deborah joined Jetstar Airways as Safety Investigations Manager and occasional pilot to maintain her Airbus A320 rating.
• In July 2012, she joined Tigerair Australia. She was an Airbus A320 Captain and instructor.
• 2019 Queens Birthday Honours – Lawrie was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in recognition of her “significant service to aviation as a commercial pilot and to women in the profession.”
• As of March 2020, she was the world’s oldest female commercial pilot.
• In June 2020, inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame.

First-ever to hold an Australian Pilot Licence

Paramatta dentist William Hart was the first person in Australia to hold a pilot’s licence. In September 1911, he purchased a Bristol Box-kite from Joseph Hammond, who was touring Australia for the British & Colonial Aeroplane Co. Ltd as a demonstration pilot.

Hart had some lessons from Hammond’s mechanic and first flew solo on 3 November. By 16 November, he had completed flying tests conducted by the Aerial League of Australia and was presented with Australian aviator’s licence no.1, dated 5 December 1911.

 This licence was eventually superseded by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale’s certificate no.199, issued by the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom on 29 March 1912.

The aeronautical pioneer Lawrence Hargrave at Stanwell Park, New South Wales. On 12 November 1894 four of his box kites lifted him sixteen feet above the ground. (Darley collection at the National Library of Australia)

First seaplane flight

Australia’s seaplane history began in Sydney on 8 May 1914 with the test flight of a privately owned Farman hydro aeroplane.  The plane belonged to Lebbeus Hordern of Darling Point. The seaplane took off from Double Bay, with French pilot Maurice Guillaux at the controls, and flew towards Manly, then westwards to the city and back to its starting point, landing in the waters at Double Bay.

First Airmail flights

Maurice Guilliax was also the pilot of the plane that carried the first airmail from Melbourne to Sydney in 1914. This run was then the most prolonged airmail delivery in the world. Meanwhile, in South Australia, Captain Harry Butler who returned from World War 1, flew mail from Adelaide to his hometown. He was quoted as saying:

‘The plane was great in War, but it will be greater in Peace. This…is the beginning of a new era in mail and passenger transport.”

In 1922 the first Qantas airmail service flew from Charleville to Longreach. November 2, 1922 was a big day for pilot McGinness and engineer Baird.  When they reached Longreach, they were greeted by a huge crowd.  Paul McGinness and Sir Wilmot Hudson Fysh were the two men who started Qantas airlines.

“First Qantas Aerial Mail Service departs Charleville, 2 November 1922”

Australia’s first “heavier than air” flight

George A Taylor of Sydney was the first Australian to make a ‘heavier than air’ flight when he made a series of glider flights at Narrabeen on 5 December 1909. On the same day, his wife Florence also flew and became the first woman to fly in Australia.

Taylor was the founder and Secretary of the Australian Air League and Australian Administrator of the British Science Guild. He promoted gliding in New South Wales until his premature death in 1928.

First Australian-made aircraft

The first Australian-designed and built aircraft was piloted by John Duigan, an Australian pioneer aviator who completed a 7-metre’ hop’ at Mia Mia, Victoria, on 16 July 1910. The Farman type biplane was powered by a four-cylinder engine and constructed by J.E Tilley in Melbourne. John and his brother Reg regularly experimented with gliders and powered aircraft and completed several successful flights.

First Australian Passengers

Joseph Hammond, with his wife as passenger, flew around Altona in Victoria for 12.4 miles on 23 February 1911. He then took Frank Coles, one of his mechanics, as a passenger on the next short flight. They flew over Williamstown, Port Melbourne, St. Kilda, Albert Park, Government House, the Exhibition Buildings, Bourke Street and Spencer Street for 28 minutes.

Melbourne businessman, M. H. Baillieu, was Australia’s first paying aeroplane passenger one month later when he made a 19 km flight with Hammond.

First people to fly around Australia

Stanley Goble and Ivor McIntyre were the first to fly around Australia in 1924 in an A10-3 Seaplane, Fairy lll. Goble and McIntyre were pilots in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). They gained national recognition in 1924 when they became the first men to circumnavigate Australia by air.

20th May(1924) Goble and McIntyre.

First pilot to fly solo from England to Australia

Herbert John Louis Hinkler better known as Bert Hinkler was a pioneer Australian aviator and inventor. He was known as the “Australian Lone Eagle”.  He designed and built aircraft and he was the first person to fly solo from England to Australia and to fly solo across the Southern Atlantic Ocean. At the age of 39 he married only to die a year later in 1933 when he crashed into the remote countryside in Italy during a solo flight record attempt.

“Bert Hinkler’s Avro Avian welcomed by crowds in Queen Street, Brisbane, 1928” by Queensland State Archives

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