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3 Squadron and the “Birth of Aviation”

100 YEARS AGO

One of 3AFC’s founding members, Jack Duigan, came to the Squadron in 1916 with an outstanding reputation as an Aviation Pioneer.  

He had entered the record books in 1910 by successfully piloting the first-ever “Australian designed and built” aircraft.

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MIA MIA, VIC. 1910-07.  JOHN DUIGAN FLYING HIS HOME-BUILT AIRCRAFT.  [AWM AO5102]

John Robertson (“Jack”) DUIGAN M.C., pioneer aviator and electrical engineer, was born on 31 May 1882 at Terang, Victoria, elder son of John Charles Duigan, bank manager and grazier, and his wife, Jane (née Robertson).  Educated at Brighton Grammar School and matriculating in 1899, in 1902 John went to England, enrolling in the City and Guilds of London Technical College, Finsbury, and obtaining a certificate in Electrical Engineering in 1904.  The following year he qualified in motor engineering and driving at Battersea Polytechnical College and then worked for the Wakefield and District Light Railway, Yorkshire.  Returning to Melbourne in 1908, he worked with a firm of electrical engineers, but later that year went to live on a family property, ‘Spring Plains’ station, at Mia Mia, Victoria.

Duigan's experiments in aviation dated from 1908 when he constructed an unsuccessful kite and then began building a Wright-type glider that was completed and flown on a tether-wire in 1909.  It was capable of lifting two people off the ground.  

Before September 1909 he began construction of a powered aircraft of his own design.  Apart from the engine, which was built by J. E. Tilly in Melbourne, the whole of the aircraft was made by Duigan at Spring Plains.  His younger brother Reginald helped to assemble the aircraft and John first 'flew' in it (hopping about six metres) on 16 July 1910.  But by early October he was flying nearly 200 metres.  These were the first flights in Australia of a locally-designed and built aircraft. 

[NB. Australia’s first successful “powered and controlled” flight had been made in March 1910, only four months earlier than Jack’s flight, by the Famous American Harry Houdini piloting his French-made Voisin aeroplane from a paddock at Diggers Rest near Melbourne.]

In 1909 the Commonwealth government had offered a £5000 prize to the inventor or designer of a flying machine suitable for military purposes.  Believing his machine to be ineligible for entry (because it was not capable of “poising”) Duigan did not submit an entry by the due date of March 1910.  Later he found that “poising” had been defined simply as the capability of turning within a half-mile circle and he submitted a late entry in August.  The Commonwealth refused to accept this entry, although the Defence Department requested a demonstration of the machine, which took place in May 1911.  The aircraft was never flown after that and was presented to Museum Victoria by Duigan in 1920.  It remains on display there today.

Duigan returned to England in 1911 and obtained a flying licence from the International Aeronautical Federation in April 1912 [the 211th person to have done so in the UK].  He bought an AVRO aeroplane and spent some months in developmental work on it at the A. V. Roe works in Huntingdon, before selling it.  Reginald joined him in England and before returning to Australia they bought an engine that was later used in an aircraft they built at their father's Ivanhoe home.  This was flown at Keilor in February 1913 but was extensively damaged in a crash.   

On 26 November 1913, Duigan married Kathleen Rebecca Corney, a nursing sister, in Melbourne.  [It is likely that they met while he was convalescing after his crash, earlier that year.  Later, during WW1, Kathleen worked in the UK and was able to occasionally meet up with her husband there.]

On 14 March 1916 Duigan was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Australian Flying Corps, and was appointed to command of the 2nd Flight of “No.2” Squadron (later re-named 3AFC) as it was established at Point Cook in August 1916.  

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Lt. Duigan at Point Cook, Victoria in 1916, before the Squadron shipped out to Europe. 
[AWM P10814.009.002, from the interesting album of Lt. Brake.]

He embarked on HMAT Ulysses (A38) in October 1916 and, after extensive training in England, was promoted to Captain and confirmed as ‘B Flight’ Commander.  He transferred to France in December 1917 and went into action with 3AFC around Arras and later in the Ypres salient and the Somme.  

He was involved in many interesting incidents; including being in the middle of the famous dogfight over the Somme that preceded the death of the Red Baron on 21 April 1918.  (Duigan also became one of the Baron’s pallbearers - the funeral having been organised by 3AFC.) 

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The tricky moment when the Red Baron’s coffin (painted by 3AFC in PC10 Aircraft Green!) was lowered into his chalk grave at Bertangles Cemetery on 22 April. 
 Jack is assisting with the foot of the coffin.  [AWM K00043.]

Just before the funeral, Duigan had flown an important mission that located the Germans’ “Amiens Gun” – a huge artillery piece that was later captured by the AIF and is now on display at the AWM in Canberra.

Duigan was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action on 9 May 1918, when his RE8 fought off four German Fokker Dr.1 Triplanes in a long battle over Villers-Bretonneux.  His Observer, Lieutenant Alec Paterson MM, was wounded in five places and the RE8 was riddled with bullets, but they also shot down one of the enemy fighters.  Exhibiting exceptional flying skill, Duigan got them safely down just inside the Allied front line.  [Thereby saving both their lives, as they had no parachutes, under the appalling RAF doctrine of that era.]  Duigan had been wounded by three German bullets and was also alarmed to find fuel cascading over him from their holed petrol tank.  – At the same time the enemy fighters were filling the air with smoking incendiary bullets and the RE8’s tailplane was dripping flames!  He put the aircraft into a violent spin to shake off the enemy machines and skilfully force-landed between shell-holes near the trenches.  He then lifted his unconscious Observer out of the petrol-soaked cockpit and, before being taken to hospital, also retrieved their hard-won reconnaissance plates, so these could be sent to headquarters.  Both Duigan and Paterson were evacuated to London and subsequently recovered from their wounds.  [Alec Paterson’s AFC service dress tunic is today preserved in the AWM.  Before transferring to the AFC, Paterson had won his Military Medal as an artilleryman on the Somme in 1916, in the hellish fighting around Pozieres.]  Credit for shooting them down was given to the German ace Vizefeldwebel Franz Hemer of Jasta 6.


Hemer’s Fokker Triplane.

In five months at the front, Duigan had made 99 separate flights, accumulating over 140 hours of flying-time; mostly on lonely missions over enemy lines.  As a result of his wounds, Duigan was not sent back to the front.  He finished the war as the acting Commanding Officer of No.7 Training Squadron AFC at Leighterton in Britain, (training 3AFC’s replacement aircrews).

His appointment with the Australian Flying Corps ended on 15 July 1919 and he resumed work in Melbourne as an electrical engineer.  In 1928 he moved to Yarrawonga where he conducted a motor engineering business until 1941.  He returned to Melbourne in that year and for the rest of World War Two was employed in the quality control branch of the Royal Australian Air Force.   He then lived in retirement with Kathleen at Ringwood Vic., eventually dying of cancer on 11 June 1951.  

John Duigan occupies a special place in Australia's aviation history as the first Australian to design, build and fly an aeroplane.  A memorial to his achievements was unveiled in 1960 on the Lancefield road near Mia-Mia in the Victorian goldfields (the site of his first flight).  In 1970, Australia Post released a stamp featuring the Duigan brothers.


The Duigan memorial stamp, c.1970.

Sources for this article:
Based on Australian Dictionary of Biography, with additional data from Museum Victoria
and Jack’s
AFC Record.

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