When John Robertson Duigan wrote to the then Industrial and Technological Museum in 1920, offering to donate an aircraft he had built ‘many years ago about 1910’, the curator, R.H. Walcott, immediately recognised a unique piece of Australian aviation heritage; it was the ‘first Australian-made aircraft to fly’.
Duigan was born at Terang, Victoria, in 1882, and studied electrical and motor engineering in London, before returning to join his younger brother, Reginald, managing a family property at Mia Mia in Central Victoria.
Inspired by the achievements of the Wright brothers in the United States, he built a glider in 1908 and managed to fly it in a strong wind tethered to 110 metres of fencing wire. Following this success, Duigan began work on a powered aircraft, which he first flew on 16 July 1910.
Over succeeding months, further modifications and improvements were made until he managed sustained flights of up to a kilometre at heights of 30 metres. In January 1911, Duigan demonstrated his plane to newspaper reporters, and the following April he made several public flights before a crowd of 1000 at the Bendigo Racecourse.
Duigan’s achievement is all the more remarkable for the fact that he had never seen or flown an aircraft previously and had little technical information with which to work. His first design was based on little more than a postcard of the Wright Flyer. With the exception of the engine and propeller, each component was made by Duigan and his brother in a rudimentary workshop on the farm.