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Australia’s First Power Flight 'Whittber's Hop'

History Australias First Power Flight Whittbers Hop State Library SA ID B 75210 13

The first plane flight in Australia occurred by accident in a paddock at Bolivar thanks to Salisbury-born engineer Carl 'Bill' Wilhelm Wittber.

Wittber was born in Salisbury in 1879. His father Carl August Wittber was the second headmaster of the Salisbury School. After leaving school at 14, Wittber went to the School of Mines and then the Institute of Technology in Adelaide. Later he became an apprentice with Ellis and Clarke – a firm of electrical and general engineers in Adelaide. Wittber’s interest in aviation began after he finished his engineering apprenticeship with Ellis and Clark and joined the crew of steamer SS Narrung bound for England. In 1909, a businessman from Adelaide and aviation enthusiast, Frederick H. Jones, bought a Bleriot Type XI monoplane while on a business trip in England. It arrived at Port Adelaide in February 1910 and was taken by horse and trolley to the stables of John Martins in Kent Town to be stored.

Jones hired Wittber to supervise the assembly and rigging of the aircraft and be responsible for the running of the engine as well as being in charge of the test flights. The Bleriot was assembled and rigged at Eyes and Crowle – an automobile repair company where Bill was employed. The plane was later displayed in the Magic Cave in John Martins store at what is now Rundle Mall for several weeks before Fred Custance volunteered to fly the Bleriot.

Jones selected a paddock at Bolivar for the flight of the plane and Wittber was the engineer in charge. On Sunday 13 March, 1910 Wittber took charge of the controls. After running the engine between 50 and 60 per cent capacity and into the wind, the Bleriot became airborne. Wittber described the flight in his own words. “The plane gradually rose approximately five feet (1.5 metres) off the ground and travelled about 40 yards (36.5 metres), then brought the plane down gradually onto its wheels…,” he said. On Thursday 17 March, Jones and Custance prepared the Bleriot for a flight. Custance taxied the Bleriot for 70 yards (64 metres) and 15 feet (4.5 metres) off the ground. It circled the field several times covering three miles (7.5km). The flight lasted five minutes and 25 seconds. Another flight was attempted. The Bleriot flew for 180 metres at a height of 15 metres followed by a nose dive into the ground. The only people who saw this was Jones, the owner of the field named A. Winzor and Mr and Mrs Sawyer of Bolivar. The Bleriot was repaired by the coach and body builders Duncan and Fraser on Grenfell Street and stored in a warehouse in Gilles Arcade on Currie Street. Unfortunately, the warehouse at one point caught fire and destroyed the aircraft. Wittber later bought what remained of the Bleriot, although he was mainly interested in the engine. He rebuilt the engine and put it on display at Hannan Brothers workshop in Adelaide. It is thought to have been sold and taken overseas.

The Wittber Hop Memorial

On 27 June, 1967 a plaque and mosaic plaque to commemorate these events was erected by the City of Salisbury on the corner of Victoria Drive and Port Wakefield Road, Parafield Gardens, where it remains today. This memorial is known as The Wittber Hop Memorial.

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