John Duigan – Australian Aviation Pioneer

Captain John R. Duigan MC - AFC, circa 1918
Captain John R. Duigan MC – AFC circa 1918 (Photo Source: Duigan Family Archives)

John Robertson Duigan

During World War One a very famous Australian pilot was flying with distinction and bravery in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). His name was John Robertson Duigan (May 31st,  1882 – June 11th, 1951). Duigan was an aviation pioneer who on July 16th, 1910 made the first Australian designed, built and piloted powered flight.

That first flight took place on his father’s property “Spring Plains”, a 10,000 acre sheep station  near Mia Mia in Victoria (a monument to the flight was erected nearby in 1960 – see below). They flew just 7 metres (23 feet) that day but made their significant mark that will remain a milestone in Australian history forever more.

Duigan had studied electrical and motor engineering at Finsbury Technical College in London, UK from 1902 to 1904 and after graduating and working in London he returned home in 1908 to briefly work at an electrical equipment manufacturer in Melbourne before going to help his younger brother Reginald manage the family farm. John Duigan was inspired to fly by a 1908 postcard sent from a friend in Great Britain that showed a Wright Flyer aircraft designed by the flight founding Wright Brothers and detailed the extended flights then being conducted in France by Wilbur Wright.

Early Australian Flights

First John Duigan built a glider in 1908 which was successful in a tethered flight during strong winds. It was tied down by 110 metres of fencing wire!

John Duigan seated at the controls of his Wright Brothers type glider circa 1909
John Duigan seated at the controls of his Wright Brothers type glider circa 1909 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)

2 years later on that day in 1910 John Duigan flew a pusher biplane aircraft he designed and built with his brother Reginald Duigan (September 15th, 1888 – June 15th, 1966). who also later flew the aircraft (neither had ever piloted an aircraft before!). The aircraft was known as the Duigan Pusher Biplane (donated by John Duigan in 1920, Museum Victoria have the original in storage but a replica of the aircraft can be seen at the Melbourne Museum).

Duigan Pusher Biplane circa 1910 at Mia Mia
Duigan Pusher Biplane circa 1910 at Mia Mia (Photo Source: Duigan Family Archives)
John Roberston Duigan flying his pusher biplane aircraft design near Mia Mia in 1910 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)
John Roberston Duigan flying his pusher biplane aircraft design near Mia Mia in 1910 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)

Between July 1910 and May 1911 the Duigan brothers went on to make some 80 flights of varying distances and durations in their pusher biplane but John Duigan’s first flight only went about 7 metres (twenty-three feet). They continued to modify and improve their Pusher Biplane. These flights did not always go so well though and the biplane was damaged in a heavy landing in August 1910.

By October 1910 Duigan was flying nearly 183 metres (600 feet) and later, anywhere up to 2 kilometres (1.24 miles). He apparently considered the later flights more controlled and in his opinion his first truly successful flight was on October 7th, 1910 when he flew 178 metres (584 feet).

John R. Duigan at the controls of his Biplane Pusher aircraft circa 1911
John R. Duigan at the controls of his Biplane Pusher aircraft circa 1911 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)
John Duigan flying his biplane in a cross wind at Spring Plains, Mia Mia, Victoria on January 25th, 1911.
John Duigan flying his biplane in a cross wind at Spring Plains, Mia Mia, Victoria on January 25th, 1911. Annotation in John Duigan’s hand on obverse states : “January 25th 1911 at Mia Mia Wind has blown wheels round. Machine just rising (not previously published)” (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)
Duigan Pusher Biplane in flight at Spring Plains Station, Mia Mia on May 31st, 1911
Duigan Pusher Biplane in flight at Spring Plains Station, Mia Mia on May 31st, 1911 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)

Australian Flying Corps

John Duigan, Australian Flying Corps 1916
John Duigan, Australian Flying Corps 1916 (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)

On March 14th, 1916 during World War One our very own John Robertson Duigan was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps (AFC). He embarked for training in Britain in October 1916.

Duigan was promoted to Captain and became a Flight Commander in August 1917. Then it was onto France with AFC No. 3 Squadron flying Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 two-seat biplane reconnaissance and bomber aircraft on missions to locate German gun positions, conduct photographic reconnaissance and bombing attacks.

On April 22nd, 1918 he and his observer, Lieutenant Alec Paterson spotted a gun flash from the great German “Amiens” railway gun at Harbonnières in France (it was used to shell Amiens, which was over 20km away!). Known to the Germans as “Bruno”, the Australian 31st Battalion later captured it. The barrel of this massive 28cm calibre railway gun is today on display in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Duigan proved himself a very capable pilot in combat, so much so that he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on May 8th, 1918 when he was attacked by four German Fokker Dr.I Driedecker triplane scouts from Jasta 6 over Villers-Bretonneux. His observer knocked one of the German scouts out of the fight but the other three pressed home the attack.

Despite being severely wounded (shot four times) and his aircraft being on fire, with his observer unconscious, Duigan managed to evade the enemy aircraft and force land near the frontline between held German trenches and abandoned Allied trenches. A great landing given he was wounded. Once on the ground he insisted the photographic plates from his reconnaissance mission be sent to headquarters and his observer rescued first, before he himself was taken to hospital!

The barrel of the great "Amiens" railway gun captured by the Australian 31st Battalion on August 8th, 1918 (Australian War Memorial)
The barrel of the great “Amiens” railway gun captured by the Australian 31st Battalion on August 8th, 1918 (Australian War Memorial – January 2016)

Duigan made 99 flights mostly behind enemy lines during his 5 months at the front but that last engagement and the wounds he suffered ended his combat career (he had to be evacuated to Great Britain for medical treatment). He was also a No. 3 Squadron pallbearer at the military funeral for leading German air ace Manfred Von Richthofen, the “Red Baron” who was shot down and killed on April 21st, 1918.

Duigan finished the war as the acting Commanding Officer of AFC Number 7 Training Squadron in Great Britain (Yatesbury) before returning to Australia in 1919. When he got back to Melbourne he became an Electrical Engineer but remained on the reserve list. From 1941 to 1942 he worked again for the Australian military in the RAAF quality control branch responsible for aircraft engine components at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Fisherman’s Bend, Port Melbourne (he was placed on the retired list in 1942). His contribution to Australian aviation was significant.

Duigan Flight Memorial

Duigan Flight Memorial Dedication near Mia Mia on May 28th, 1960 - Unveiled by Air Marshal Richard Williams
Duigan Flight Memorial Dedication near Mia Mia on May 28th, 1960 – Unveiled by Air Marshal Richard Williams (Photo Source: Museum Victoria)

It has taken me a long time but in April 2016 I finally travelled to the memorial dedicated to John Duigan’s first flight in 1910 near Mia Mia (just outside of town a few kilometres along the Burke and Wills Track). Designed by Reginald Duigan’s son Terence and unveiled in 1960 (with both Reginald and Terence in attendance), the memorial is a simple basalt pylon with a plaque and Douglas DC-3 aircraft propeller.

Apart from some ongoing maintenance and the painting of the propeller tips, very little has changed with the memorial since 1960. The only real difference is the addition in later years, of other signage and plaques with historic information near the memorial.

The memorial is surrounded by the countryside where the flight took place and near the location of the old Duigan family home. I think it is a fitting tribute to this great aviator and his brother Reginald. Standing there on that quiet country road, looking out at the rocky paddocks before me, I felt a lot of appreciation for their determination to conquer powered flight.

Duigan Flight Memorial, Mia Mia, Victoria
Duigan Flight Memorial, Mia Mia, Victoria in April 2016
Duigan Flight Memorial, Mia Mia, Victoria in April 2016
Duigan Flight Memorial, Mia Mia, Victoria in April 2016
Burke & Wills Track and the country side around the Duigan Flight Memorial, Mia Mia, Victoria
Burke & Wills Track and the country side around the Duigan Flight Memorial, Mia Mia, Victoria in April 2016

Harry Houdini

Although John Duigan made the first Australian designed, built and piloted powered flight he was not the first pilot to complete a controlled powered, heavier than air flight in Australia. Interestingly this title is generally agreed to have been completed by renown Hungarian-American escape artist Harry Houdini (March 24th, 1874 – October 31st, 1926)! He brought a Voisin biplane to Australia that was purchased and shipped from Germany (he had flown it there in 1909), making this historic first flight at Diggers Rest in Victoria on March 18th, 1910.

Houdini's first flight at Diggers Rest in 1910
Houdini’s first flight at Diggers Rest in 1910 (Photo Source: Melbourne Argus newspaper. Library of Congress)

This was just a few months before the Duigan brothers. Houdini went on to make numerous flights in Australia during his visit. Quite an unusual piece of Australian aviation history!

References:

Australian National Aviation Museum – The Duigan Family

Hargrave – The Pioneers – Houdini

Museum Victoria – John Robertson Duigan

Museum Victoria – John Duigan’s Military Service

Museum Victoria – Reginald Charles Duigan

Wikipedia – Duigan Pusher Biplane

 

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