Australia – a world leader in aviation

Media release: Friday, 12 September 2014

In the early years of aviation development, Australia led the world – from Lawrence Hargrave's flight experiments in the 1880s to the foresight of the Australian Government in the early 20th century.

Staff member Greg Cope has been delving into the vaults at the National Archives in Brisbane and will share his findings in two free public talks on the subject on 17 and 19 September.

'Lawrence Hargrave was the first in Australia to experiment with powered flight,' he said. 'In 1894 he lifted himself off the ground at Stanwell Park, under a train of four of his invented box kites.

'Believing in a free exchange of ideas, he refused to patent the concept. His box kite was the basis of most early German and French aeroplanes and his work also inspired the Wright brothers, celebrated for undertaking the first flight in 1903.'

When British military and political leaders began to fear enemy attack by air, Australian Minister for Defence Senator George Pearce quickly approved a competition for the best and most suitable flying machine for military purposes, with a prize of 5000 pounds (approximately $1 million in today's money).

Two years later, Senator Pearce gained support for a flying school and on 30 December 1911 the Commonwealth Gazette called for the 'appointment of two competent mechanists and aviators'. However it added that 'the Commonwealth Government will accept no liability for accidents'.

'In 1913 the Australian Flying Corps was established at Point Cook, Victoria – the first permanent military airbase in the world,' said Greg Cope. 'Following the outbreak of World War I, Australia formed its first squadrons of the Australian Flying corps – only the second country in the world to have an air force. As one of the early pilots in the war Charles Kingsford Smith later pursued a celebrated career in aviation.'

Aware of the benefits of aviation to such a vast and isolated country, in 1919 Prime Minister Billy Hughes offered a prize of 10,000 pounds for the first Australians to fly an aircraft from England to Australia. Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, the winning flight took 27 days and 20 hours, a remarkable time for the journey.

The free public talk 'Australian aviation' will be held at the National Archives, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill, on Wednesday 17 September at 10 am and repeated on Friday 19 September at 2 pm.

NOTE: Greg Cope is available for interview

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e
  • Greg Cope (Director, Queensland State Office)
    t (07) 3249 4224 m 0400 753 854
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2018