Video celebrating the centenary of Australian aviation


Patrick Greene: In the past year, a million people have come into Melbourne Museum, and as they come into the entrance they walk under a very faithful replica of a plane which had its first flight near Mia Mia, Central Victoria, one hundred years ago. And the museum is celebrating this in a number of ways but most notably by the publication of a book by David Crotty which traces the fascinating story of John Duigan and his amazing aircraft.

David Crotty: This is the aeroplane John Duigan built along with his brother Reg, and it took them about six months to build it and another six months to get it to fly properly, but it really was the first Australian designed and built aeroplane.

The frame is made from Mountain Ash timber, and the wing ribs are made from Red Pine, and it also has wire, mostly fencing wire, for bracing and metal parts including the undercarriage and engine of course. Absolutely every part of this aeroplane was made in Australia, there's nothing that was imported - the engine, the undercarriage, the materials, everything - totally Australian made. It is fragile after a hundred years so the aeroplane has to be treated carefully. It's not gone on public display for 12 years, it needs a little bit of conservation work, but essentially it's in the same sort of condition that it was when John Duigan donated it to the museum in 1920. 

So this is John Duigan's control system. He had the elevator control in his right hand, this one here, which controlled the up and down movement. In his left hand he had the aileron control, this separate stick here, which he moved side-to-side to control the side-to-side movement, and he had this little styrup here where he put his left foot and that controlled the rudder, which was the yaw. And he had to fly using all three controls, so it was that way, that way, and with his foot as well, so you can imagine how difficult it would be to coordinate all of those three movements.  

This engine was not built by Duigan himself. It was actually built by an acquaintance of his, J. E. Tilley, who ran an engineering business in Little Latrobe Street in Melbourne. There were some problems and on hot days in particular it didn't quite provide as much power as Duigan wanted. So eventually he actually modified it from being air-cooled to water-cooled - quite a technically difficult thing to do, in fact, Tilley himself said it couldn't be done. John Duigan went ahead and did it and he actually built his own radiator, which you can see up there. He said it was one of the worst jobs he had to do on the whole aeroplane because the whole thing took a long time and it was all built by hand, beaten up out of little bits of copper.

John Duigan didn't invent anything new, but he did put the package together in a brilliantly simple design that did exactly what it was intended to do, no more and no less. It was a work of practical genius. 

About this Video

Patrick Greene and David Crotty discuss the significance of the Duigan biplane in the history of Australian aviation.
Length: 02:50