first powered flight in Australia occurred at Bolivar SA
on 17 Mar 1910 when Frederic Custance flew a Bleriot monplane
owned by the property owner FH Jones. The flight was witnessed
by Jones and several neighbours.
Frederick Cyril Custance was a motor mechanic who came
to Australia from England in 1906 and he was employed by
Jones to prepare
the plane purchased in kit form for flight.
Ever since that day there has reigned some controversy over
who first flew an aircraft in Australia. Many authorities
wrongly attribute the feat to Harry Houdini whose flight
in Victoria attracted great publicity whereas Custance's
flight occurred at dawn in a rural area of SA.
Custance's claim was not helped by FH Jones later claiming
in 1943 that he actually was at the controls of the aircraft!
While Jones was in England he became impressed by the flights
of Louis Bleriot who had flown from France to Dover in England.
He paid paid £1000 for a Bleriot Type XI
monoplane, powered by a 24hp Anzini rotary engine. When
the aircraft arrived in SA an engineer, Bill Wittber, was
engaged to assemble and rig the aircraft.† Assisted by Fred
Custance, the machine was assembled and displayed in John
Martinís Department Store in Rundle Street Adelaide.
The aircraft was moved to the present day northern suburb
of Bolivar, then a rural area, where the first attempts
at flying it were to be made.† At this point, none of those
involved had ever flown an aircraft!
It is reported that on 13 March the aircraft was run around
the paddock with Wittber at the controls. The plane struck
a tussock and took off into the air for about 15 metres
before landing unharmed.† Since it was such a short distance
Wittber never claimed it as a flight.† Early on the morning
of 17 March 1910 Custance is believed to have taxied the
aircraft around the same paddock several times before taking
off (some say on impulse) on the first flight.† A second
attempt resulted in the aircraft stalling and crashing causing
extensive damage. The Bleriot was returned to Adelaide for
repairs and a few weeks later was destroyed by fire.
While little publicity attended the efforts in South Australia,
those of Harry Houdini at Diggers Rest in Victoria received
wide reporting.† Houdini had a full understanding of the
value of publicity and there were a number of would-be aviators
and newspaper reporters present for his initial flights
and his efforts were widely reported in the newspapers of
During the Great War Custance flew BE2cs in Palestine with
No 1 Squadron. He created a record by flying from Cairo
to Romani in 40 hours. After the war he obtained the Caterpillar
tractor agency for South Australia. Fred Custance
died in 1922 of exhaustion aged 33 in the South Australian
his car broke down.