Houdini the aviator

In 1909 Houdini became fascinated with aviation and purchased a 60-horsepower French Voisin biplane for $5000. Characteristically, he had his name emblazoned on the wings. Houdini made his first flight at the Hufaren parade grounds at Wandsbek near Hamburg on November 26, 1909. It's said Houdini was only the 25th person to ever fly a plane.

After giving several demonstration flights in Germany (and teaching German soldiers how to fly, something he'd regret come World War I), Houdini learned that no one had yet made a successful flight in Australia. Seeing a chance to get in the record books, Houdini embarked on an Australian tour with his Voisin in tow.

Houdini’s first attempts to fly at Diggers Rest near Melbourne were hampered by weather conditions, mechanical problems and one crash. Worse was the appearance of a rival aviator, Ralph C. Banks, who set up his new Wright Flyer on the same field. But on Friday, March 18, 1910, at around eight o’clock in the morning, the weather cleared and Houdini successfully took flight.

Houdini's historic first flight lasted only a minute and reached a height of no more than twenty-five feet, but it was witnessed by at least nine people (including Ralph Banks) who signed a statement. Houdini told a reporter on the ride back to Melbourne. "I can fly now."

Houdini was officially recognized as the first person to ever make a controlled flight in Australia by the Australian Aerial League and presented with an impressive trophy. But controversy surrounded the claim. Fred Custance, a 19-year-old mechanic from South Australia, claimed to have beat Houdini with a flight in a Bleriot XI monoplane on March 17. Custance had no witnesses and years later his mechanic admitted the claim was false. A more serious challenge was made after Houdini’s death on behalf of Englishman Colin Defries who is said to have flown a Wright Model A aircraft about 115 yards at Sydney's Victoria Racecourse on December 9, 1909.

After his Australian tour, which included several more spectacular exhibition flights at Rosehill racetrack near Sydney, Houdini put the Voisin into storage in England. He sold the plane in 1913.

In 1920 Houdini again made aviation news when he announced plans to make a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. It's unclear how serious Houdini was about this as the flight never materialized.

Houdini's last flirtation with aviation came in his 1919 movie The Grim Game. The climax of the movie sees Houdini's character, Harvey Hanford, making a mid-air transfer between two Curtis biplanes (rented from Cecile B. DeMille's Santa Monica based aircraft company). While filming the stunt, the two planes crashed. Miraculously, no one was killed, and the caught on film accident was used heavily in promotion of the movie. Never revealed was the fact that is was actually a novice wing-walker named Robert Kennedy who was doubling Houdini at the time of the crash. Houdini's scenes were all shot safely on the ground.

Ironically, Houdini stated that even if the world forgot Houdini the magician, it could never forget his accomplishments as a pioneer aviator.

100 years ago Houdini showed Australia that a man can fly