Harry Houdini: Escaping Terra FirmaText by Divan MullerToday, almost 100 years after his death, Harry Houdini remains a household name. He was world famous for escaping from chains, straightjackets and locked containers, but he did not escape the pages of aviation history.Birth of a showman

Ehrich Weiss was born in March 1874 in Budapest, Hungary. When he was four years old, his family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin in the United States. From a young age, Ehrich’s friends and six siblings called him ‘Ehrie’ pronounced ‘Harry.’ Although he began performing in front of audiences as a pre-teenager, his career as a magician and showman took off when he was seventeen years old. He called himself ‘Harry Houdini’, copying the stage surname from a French magician who, at the time, was his role model. Harry performed magic tricks in circuses and sang and danced along with his wife, but he soon discovered that he gained more popularity as an escape artist. He travelled from town to town and ultimately Britain and Europe, offering cash rewards to police services that provide handcuffs from which he could not escape. Harry Houdini became increasingly popular and was soon seen escaping from prison cells, containers, torture cells and even graves. He starred in a number of movies and even became known for exposing and debunking mediums, psychics and spiritualists. In spite of all the fame, Harry Houdini still feared that the world would forget him and his feats after his death. Somehow, he needed to do something that would embed his name in history.

The magic of flight

In 1909, seven years after the Wright Brothers first took to the sky, Houdini became interested in aviation. Although he was openly patriotic towards the United States, he chose to purchase a French Voisin Biplane. Compared with the aircraft available from the American Wright Brothers, the Voisin was cheaper and easier to fly, although it lacked any control surfaces that resembled ailerons. In other words, the pilot could control pitch and yaw, but not the angle of bank. Harry Houdini intended to make history by becoming the first man to fly in Australia. The flying escape artist received some basic training in Germany and in 1910, Houdini, his wife, aircraft and French mechanic set sail for the ‘land down under’.

Making history would not be an easy task, as Houdini soon discovered. As it turned out, Houdini was not the only one striving to become the first person to conquer Australian skies. During the previous year, for example, Englishman Colin Defries made an attempt at becoming the first man to fly in Australia. Also, two rival aviators were desperately trying to beat Houdini in the race for the sky. Continuous bad weather added to the drama. One of Houdini’s competitors, Ralph Banks, based at the same airfield, ran out of patience waiting for better weather. He took off and instantly lost control in the strong winds. Meanwhile, the patient escape artist performed on stage by day and slept under his aircraft’s wing by night.
Finally, on 18 March 1910, Harry Houdini took off in his Voisin biplane. His first flight lasted a minute and he reached a height of 25 feet. He completed two more flights that day, with the latter lasting three and a half minutes. He reached a maximum height of 100 feet.
Was he the first?

Houdini’s success was not without controversy. It is certain that he completed three successful flights on 18 March 1910, but what about his competitors? As mentioned, Ralph Banks took off and crashed before Houdini’s flights took place. Banks’ Wright Flyer was destroyed in the incident. Fred Custance, a nineteen year old Australian mechanic claimed that he flew a Bleriot XI on 17 March, one day before Houdini’s first flight. Apparently he had only one witness, who happened to be his sponsor. Years later, the witness admitted that Custance’s flight never took place. What about the Englishman Colin Defries? He made two attempts in December 1909. During the more successful flight, he covered a distance of 110 metres. During the entire flight, he barely reached treetop height. He then crashed whilst trying to recover his hat, which had been blown off his head. The Aerial League did not recognise his feat as ‘controlled flight’. As a result, Harry Houdini officially became the first person to complete a fully controlled flight in Australia.

The legendary escape artist later completed several flights in Australia. He had made history as an aviator, but that was not his real career. He continued living his life as a showman until his death in 1926. He was 52 years old and died of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. Contrary to what he believed, Houdini will probably be remembered for his daring acts on stage, rather than his accomplishment as an aviator. Nevertheless, the foundation of the world of aviation was laid by pioneers, such as Houdini, who travelled the world to do what no-one else had done before.
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