Home Melbourne Stories Mia Mia’s Duigan Flight Memorial and the story of John Robertson Duigan

Mia Mia’s Duigan Flight Memorial and the story of John Robertson Duigan

The monument to commemorate the first flight of an Australian made aircraft

Mia Mia is a pastoral settlement 120km north of Melbourne CBD.  Mia Mia is historically significant being the location of the first flight of an Australian made aeroplane and it was also the location of a violent gold escort robbery of 1853. The Burke and Wills expedition passed through Mia Mia in 1860 on their journey from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was also the location of the 1945 crash of Vhuyy Tokana aeroplane which killed 10 people. This article is about the story of the first flight of an Australian built aeroplane and its creator John Duigan.

On July 16, 1910, John Duigan flew an aircraft for a distance of 23feet (7metres) at his family’s property ‘’Spring Plains’’ at Mia Mia, Victoria.

Five kilometres into the road from Lancefield to Mia Mia via Ben Loch and the Great Dividing Range which is now called ‘The Burke and Wills Track’, is a monument to celebrate the first flight by John Duigan’s aeroplane. The inscription on the monument reads as follows,

“This pylon commemorates the first flight of an aeroplane built and flown by an Australian about one mile east of this spot, on 16th July 1910. John Robertson Duigan first flew the aeroplane which he and his brother Reginald built on their father’s property ‘Spring Plains’.

Unveiled by

 Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams KBE CB DSO

28TH May 1960 ‘’

On July 16, 1910, John Duigan flew an aircraft for a distance of 23feet (7metres) at his family’s property ‘’Spring Plains’’ at Mia Mia, Victoria.

The Story of John Robertson Duigan

John Robertson Duigan was born at Terang in Victoria on 31 May 1882 to John Charles Duigan, a local bank manager with the Colonial Bank of Australasia and his wife, Jane Robertson. John Robertson was the eldest of the five children. He had three sisters and a brother.

John Robertson Duigan

When Robertson was seven years old, the family moved to Brighton to a mansion situated at the corner of Moule Avenue and Bay Street. In October 1901 John Robertson left for England to pursue studies in Electrical Engineering. He studied electrical engineering at Finsbury Technical College in London from 1902 to 1904 and did Motor Engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in 1905.

After completing his studies, he worked at Wakefield & District Light Railway Co. until 1907 and returned to Melbourne in 1908. For a short while he worked with Geo. Weymouth Pty Ltd, one of Australia’s leading early manufacturers of electrical equipment.

John Robertson Duigan test flying at Bendigo Racecourse. Courtesy: State Library of NSW

He then joined his brother Reginald at ‘Spring Plains’, a 1000-acre sheep station owned by his father near Mia Mia in Victoria. In 1908, he received a postcard from his British friend about the Wilbur Wright’s flights in France and began constructing a Wright type glider. His attention turned to making powered flights.  He obtained 20 HP – four-cylinder engine made by J.E. Tilley in Melbourne and constructed a Farman type biplane, a motor-powered aircraft and did a short flight on 16th July 1910. He flew it many times before taking it to Bendigo Racecourse on 3rd May 1911, where it completed a circling flight.

In 1911, John Robertson Duigan was back in Britain to obtain an aviator’s certificate. The two seat biplane he purchased from A.V.Roe  for the purpose was an untried prototype design which failed to fly. He modified the aircraft with a powerful engine and a lighter propeller. But after trying for nearly six months, he could only accumulate four hours of flying time. But anyway, he managed to pass the flying test on 20th April 1912 and received the aviator’s certificate. He sold the aircraft before returning to Melbourne but brought with him the ENV engine and other parts. With his brother Reginald, John Robertson began building an AVR type biplane at their parent’s property at Marshall Street in Ivanhoe. The first flight of the newly built aircraft turned out to be a disaster.  On 17 February 1913, on a trial at Keilor, while landing the biplane crashed flipping upside down injuring Duigan and the plane was nearly destroyed.

On 26th November 1913, Duigan married nurse Kathleen Rebecca Corney at Caulfield and then established an electrical engineering business in partnership with Horace John White in Melbourne, specialising in the repair of motor car and motorcycle magnetos and the installation of electric lighting sets.

After the world war broke out, Duigan approached the Defence Department offering to sell his biplane for pilot training, which was declined. In March 1916, Duigan enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps as Lieutenant. He was promoted as Captain in August 1917. In September 1918, he received Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ after an air fight in which his RE.8 was set upon by four German Fokker Dr.1 Triplanes of Jasta 6 over Villers-Bretonneux on 9 May 1918. Despite being severely wounded after being shot during the attack, Duigan managed to land safely and saved the life of his observer Lieutenant Alec Paterson MM.

In 1919, he returned to Melbourne and sold his interest in the engineering business.  He donated his original 1910 biplane to the Industrial & Technological Museum in Melbourne in 1920 and it remains with Museum Victoria.  In 1928, he and his wife moved to Yarrawonga and established his own garage business, Old Bridge Motors. In 1941, Duigan suffered a heart attack, sold his business and returned to Melbourne. In Melbourne, he worked for the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate (AID) as an Inspector of Aircraft parts until the end of World War II. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1950 and died at his home in Warrandyte Road, Ringwood on 11 June 1951.


In January 1911, journalists from The Argus visited Duigan at his parent’s property at Mia Mia and prepared this article. A trimmed version of the article is published here for our readers. This is almost like watching live, the man who built Australia’s first aircraft and the surroundings where this happened.

Courtesy: Accessed from the database of National Library of Australia

The Argus  /Saturday 28 Jan 1911 Page 8

AUSTRALIAN AVIATOR

At his workshop

Mr. DUIGAN IN HIS WORKSHOP

The workshop in which Mr. Duigan built his biplane is an ordinary lean-to, with corrugated iron roof and earth floor. In the above picture, Mr. Duigan is at his lathe, and standing in front of him, against the wall, is the propeller rejected as being too small. Jug Creek which runs through the Spring Plains sheep property, between Mia Mia (four miles from Redesdale) and Heathcote, a yellow-crested cockatoo sat, acting as sentry for his fellows, quietly feeding in a crop some distance away. The time was 5 o’clock on the morning of January 25, and the sun was just rising behind the neighbouring hills. In the growing light the cattle were browsing, and the scene was one of pastoral peace.

The Spring Plains homestead was just rousing for the work of the day, when from a shed at the rear a large, unwieldy- looking object was drawn out, and with great care wheeled slowly down the steep hill to the creek. It was this which had caught the eye of the sentinel cockatoo, and no wonder that he screeched his warning, for his domain—that of the air— was to be assailed by the first Australian aeroplane, designed, built, and flown by a young Australian.

The Spring Plains Estate belongs to Mr. J. C. Duigan, of Ivanhoe, whose sons live on the station and manage and work it. Mr. Reginald Duigan is the manager, and his elder brother, Mr. J. R. Duigan, assists him, and, as a skilled engineer and mechanician, attends to all the mechanical work on the station. Here, in his spare time, and in most adverse circumstances, he has designed, and built an aeroplane, and has succeeded in flying.

Mr. John Duigan, the successful builder and aviator, was educated at Brighton Grammar School, under Dr. G. H. Crowther. After a short course at the Working Men’s College, he went to England, where, entering Finsbury Technical College, London, he studied under Professor Sylvanus Thompson, and took out his diplomas in electrical and motor engineering. After a short period of practical work with the Wakefield and District Light Railway, between Wakefield and Leeds, he returned to Victoria, and saw more practical work in the service of G. Weymouth Proprietary Ltd., electrical engineers, in Melbourne. Then he went to join his brother at Spring Plains, and almost immediately conceived the idea of flying.

It was about four years ago, when aviation was becoming a possibility, that Mr. Duigan began by building a pair of immense wings 15ft. x 3ft., with a hole in the centre for his body. These were made in a day, and as quickly discarded, for beyond a heavy fall there was no result. The first attempt ended in smoke in more ways than one, for the wings which would not fly were used for fire-lighting. When Wilbur Wright made his first flights in France, Mr. Duigan obtained a picture of the Wright machine and built one on a smaller scale. He had no engine, but single-handed, and with the ordinary tools found in the station workshop, produced a “glider” of 20ft. span, with which, after considerable difficulty, he had some useful practice, but, owing to gusty winds, was unable to rise more than 4ft. at any time. This was in March,1909.

Three months later the library at Spring Plains was enriched by a present from a former comrade at Finsbury College of Sir Hiram Maxim’s book on “Natural and Artificial Flight.” The thirst for knowledge of the air had been whetted by the previous attempts, but with this new book the young Victorian found himself supplied with accurate data for calculations. At first the purchase of an engine from Paris seemed beyond his means—£400 was the price quoted—and the idea of making a power-driven machine seemed as far off as ever.

In order to reach the flying ground from the homestead, a creek had to be crossed after the aeroplane has been brought down a hill with a grade of 1 in 4. The bridge is of single planks, and Mr. Duigan can be seen guiding the aeroplane, while his assistants are pushing.

CROSSING A CREEK

The determination necessary for a pilot of the air was, however, firmly fixed in Mr. Duigan, and this difficulty was soon overcome. A Melbourne engineer (Mr. J. E. Tilley) undertook to provide an engine as light and powerful as could be obtained from Europe, and at a much lower cost. It was to be a four-cylinder air-cooled 86 x 108, and to weigh about 100lb. He also secured a propeller 7ft. diameter and 6ft. 6in. pitch, which, with a speed of 800 revolutions per minute, allowing a slip of 20 miles per hour, provided a speed of 30 miles per hour to the machine. Subsequently the propeller was altered, and Mr. Duigan designed and made a new one, 8ft. 6in. in diameter and 10ft. pitch, in order to give an increase of speed to about 40 miles per hour, which he considers necessary for proper flight.

Mr. Duigan prepared his own plans and drew up his own specifications, and then commenced the work of construction in a shed specially built for the purpose. He chose mountain ash for the woodwork, which, though very elastic and light, was very hard to work. The station workshop provided few facilities for the task, and from first to last Mr. Duigan toiled singlehanded. He was sole designer and mechanic. He had never seen an aeroplane, but his thorough grounding in mechanics, his practical motor and engineering experience, and his indomitable patience and perseverance gradually overcame every difficulty. One trouble, and cause of much loss of time, was his distance from Melbourne, and with an unsatisfactory train service, he found that whenever he required anything he could do it better by a journey over rough bush roads on his motor-cycle, a journey of 80 miles each way. This journey to and fro he sometimes accomplished in a day, in order to get back as quickly as possible to his shed, in which much of the work was done by lamp or a candlelight.

This picture shows the biplane in full flight just as it was rising again after the first “hop.” Mr. Duigan can be seen with his hand on the lever, raising the elevator plane.

It is unnecessary to go into detail as to the various contrivances employed by Mr. Duigan. He was his own carpenter, turner, fitter, brazier, blacksmith, and often toolmaker as well. His little workshop, overlooking the flat which was subsequently to be his flying-ground, fairly hummed with the noise of hammer and saw and plane and the clang of his anvil, and gradually the machine assumed shape. The weight of all the wood had to be calculated, and, as it was dressed to size and shape, had to be weighed, from time to time, to see when the limit allowed was reached.

The aviator in the making was working it all out for himself, and as he slaved at it, giving it all the time, he could spare—for the services of a skilled mechanic were largely availed of on the station—he brought in adaptations and improvements which are unknown in any other machine. Sir Hiram Maxim’s book had laid the foundation; knowledge, ingenuity, and mechanical skill had caused developments. One ingenious improvement was the institution of air springs for the running wheels. Mr. Duigan had great difficulty in getting the pistons to hold air, but the result has been full compensation for all the trouble, for air is infinitely superior to steel for springs, and much cheaper and lighter than rubber. The cups are made of rubber, lubricated with flake graphite and glycerine, and are thus free, and absolutely airtight. The material for covering the planes was only decided upon after repeated experiments, a rubber fabric, light and strong, manufactured by the Dunlop Rubber Company, proving most suitable, and at the same time less expensive than anything else. The main planes were covered in position, while all the others were first covered and then fixed in their places.

The engine having been placed in a firm bed, the machine was ready for use, but in the numerous trials on the ground Mr Duigan found that the drive from engine to propeller shaft, which was by 1 5/8in. rubberised leather belt, 7/8in. deep, would not prove satisfactory and eventually a steel chain was adopted.

Mr. Duigan tells the story of his first trials in these words: — “When everything was fixed in position, I got my brother to help while I ran the engine. We put chocks to the wheels, and he held against it while I tried one cylinder. This ran all right, but shook everything terribly, so I tried two cylinders. When both got going the propeller began to hum, and so did the dust. The two made a fairly good wind in the shed. As everything seemed all right, I next tried the whole four, and as soon as they started there was a gale, with the machine pushing hard to get away. However, the engine was running badly, missing and spluttering the whole time. Exhaust springs were rather weak, and when these were strengthened things were a bit better, but still a long way from right.

When the engine was missing, of course, it shook the machine up a lot, so that I did not like running it. The carburettor seemed too small, so I took a large ‘Schebler’ out of an American motor buggy that we have and fixed it on. The next trial was quite different, for the engine raced away without a misfire, and very little vibration, while the push was very much greater. This was so satisfactory that after a little tuning up we took it down to our so-called flying ground. To get it there we had to take it down a hill of about 1 in 4, through two fences and across a creek. After a bit of a struggle, we got it there undamaged and climbed into the seat—or rather on to the board that served as a seat—and with some misgivings started the engine.

As soon as my friends let go she ran along the ground in good style, and seemed very steady. This run ended up a steep hill, and she took it easily, with the engine throttled. I had several runs up the hill to get used to the control, which was regulated thus—Right hand works the elevator; left hand works the ailerons or balancing planes, and also the switch stopping the engines; left foot works the rudder. After getting some confidence, and seeing that nothing had given away, I tried a run downhill, with the engine well throttled. This time I did not do quite so well, for first I swerved to the left, caused by the wind blowing a bit side on, and then right around to the right, doing a figure of 8. As the ground was a ploughed paddock, I thought the wheels would have gone, but they stood up all right.

 The machine heeled very little while turning round, the speed being about 12 miles per hour. To make things safer, I made a spring skid to go under each wing tip to check it, should it heel over much. The next trials went far better, for I first ran fast up the hill, when she nearly lifted, and as I now found I could steer straight, I had enough confidence to try fast down. This time she did a bit of a ‘hop’ when I tilted the front plane up and steered straight and level. In the next run, the little wheel under the back, which had never been satisfactory, hit the ground sideways, and all buckled up. The spring fork arrangement on this wheel also dug into the ground, and the run finished with the little wheel scraping along sideways like a disc plough. The only damage done was to the wheel and fork, the former being buckled and the latter bent. The fork was a motorcycle one, so it augured well for the strength of the plane that it was unaffected. To stop this happening again, I put a long ash skid in place of the wheel and fork, and this seemed to make the running gear right, for I have had many runs since, and nothing has given way except one wire stay to the propeller blades, which I replaced with stronger wire.”

The initial difficulties having been overcome, and Mr Duigan having obtained full confidence, he tried a real flight, and on October 7, 1910, succeeded in obtaining a flight of 196 yards, the bottom of the machine being about 12ft. above the ground. Since then Mr. Duigan has been constantly experimenting and making minor alterations and improvements, and altogether has made about 15 flights, some of them over 200 yards at an altitude of about 15ft. He has instituted water cooled heads, made with copper water jackets, and has made a radiator, each tube containing 50 pieces soldered together, or 500 in all. The total cost of the raw materials in the biplane as it now stands, with the exception of the engine, is about £75, but this of course does not allow anything for time or travelling. The dimensions of the planes are—Elevating plane 2ft. 6in. x 12ft.; main planes, 24ft. 6in. by 3ft. 6in.; rear plane 3ft. by 12ft.; rudder, 10 square feet; balancing planes, 20 square feet; wheels and tyres are 26in. by 2¼in. All the wires are piano wire, and all joints have steel plates top and bottom, with bolts through. All bolts are 3-16in. except the main uprights, which have ¼in. bolts, and the engine is held by 5-16in. bolts. The total weight, including a 10st. operator, is 630lb., and the area about 240 square feet.

Mr. Duigan’s biplane, based on Sir Hiram Maxim’s book, resembles Farman’s biplane in some respects, and in many others is quite unique. When one sees the difficulties the surroundings, and talks to the designer and inventor, one realises what it all means to him, and has meant. The biplane as it stands today in its shed at Spring Plains is a monument to Mr. Duigan’s industry, and as he moves about among its intricacies of wire and plane one sees that it is alive to him. When, with the assistance of his brother and a handy man, he draws it out of its shed, and laboriously but tenderly drags it down a steep hill to the creek, over a wooden plank bridge specially made over the rough ground a distance of about half a mile, one is more than ever impressed with the difficulties.

On Wednesday morning Mr. Duigan had a special flight for the benefit of a representative of “The Argus” and “The Argus” photographer. As we looked at the flying ground—a flat beside the creek, half a mile long, by a quarter of a mile wide—we were directed by Mr. Duigan where to stand. He has a knowledge of photography and before mounting to his seat he walked to a spot 150 yards away, and, dropping his handkerchief, said “I’ll fly over this spot, so you know where to stand.” The breeze was fairly strong from the south-east, rather across the flight, and blowing in gusts, but this did not deter him.

Mr. Duigan was lifted in to his seat, his brother stood behind him and gave the propeller one or two sharp turns, and then stepped clear of the planes. Then there was a whirr of the propeller, and we could see it flashing in the sunlight as it gained momentum. Then the chocks which had held the wheels were pulled out and the biplane bounded forward. She ran nearly 100 yards, and then, travelling at a speed of 12 or 15 miles an hour, Mr. Duigan raised the elevator, and the huge machine left the ground. This was a “hop.” She rose about 6ft., and seemed to be alighting again, when, with another push of the right hand, the elevator went up again, and the machine rose. She reached fully 20ft. from the ground, and as she passed us Mr Duigan could be seen with his machine completely under control. For 200 yards she kept on like this, flying at a speed of 25 miles an hour, when a gust of wind coming down an opening in the hills brought her round towards the creek, and Mr. Duigan lowering the elevator, she dropped to the ground, and, running lightly for a few yards, stopped. It was a highly interesting sight, but the most emphatic impression was that the machine was quite under control. The mad rush through the air was directed, controlled, and regulated by the young man who had created this wonder of the air, who knew every movement of the machine and who appeared to be, not merely the driver, but the spirit, the whole being of the flight.

As the machine slowed down Mr. Duigan leaped to the ground and steadied it. The flight satisfied the on lookers that Mr. Duigan was quite at home in his aeroplane, and that, given enough power, his engines are now only 20-horsepower, he might accomplish anything.

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