Frederic Custance

bleriotThe 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 the day.

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 desert after his car broke down.

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