Houdini could fly!


Christopher Milbourne’s biography Houdini: The Untold Story goes into a bit of detail about Houdini’s enthusiasm for aviation. Like the article Milbourne mentions Houdini’s rush to be the first person to fly an airplane in Australia.

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Houdini few in a few movies, including. The Grim Game from 1919. Supposedly, he also flew stunt work in Wings the first academy award winning film, but got no credit do to a contract issue (something to do with he was not an actor as I remember it)

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The thing is just gorgeous! Kind of a box kite bicycle swamp boat for the air.

Houdini’s claim to the first powered flight in Australia is disputed…

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Houdini features prominently in E.L. Doctorow’s marvellous novel Ragtime. Here is the passage concerning Houdini and his love of flight:

Houdini opened his European tour at the Hansa Theatre in Hamburg. The audiences were enthusiastic. The papers gave him lots of space. He had never known such feelings of dissatisfaction. He wondered why he had devoted his life to mindless entertainment. The audiences cheered. After every show there was always a small crowd at the stage entrance. He was short with them. Then one day he attended the public demonstration of a French-made flying machine, a Voisin, a beautiful biplane with boxed wings, a box rudder and three delicately strutted bicycle wheels. The aviator flew it over a race track and landed on the infield, and the next day his feat was described in the newspapers. Houdini moved decisively. Within a week he was the owner of a new Voisin biplane. It had cost him five thousand dollars. It came complete with a French mechanic who gave instructions in the art of flying. He secured the use of an army parade grounds outside Hamburg. In all the countries in which he played he always got on well with the military. Soldiers everywhere were fans of his. Each morning at dawn he would drive to the parade grounds and sit at the controls of the Voisin while the French mechanic lectured him on the function and purpose of the levers and pedals within reach of the pilot. The plane was directed by means of a large steering wheel mounted in the vertical position and attached by a shaft to the front rudder. The pilot sat behind the front rudder on a little seat between the two wings. Behind him was the engine, and behind the engine was the propeller. The Voisin was made of wood. The wings were covered in fabric stretched taut and sized with varnish. The struts connecting the double wings were paneled with the same material. The Voisin looked like a box kite. Houdini had his name painted in block letters on the outside panels of the wings and on the rear elevators. He could hardly wait for his first flight. The patient mechanic drilled him in the various operations required to get the machine aloft, maintaining it in flight and land it. Every night Houdini did his act and every morning at dawn he went out for his lesson. Finally one morning when the red sky was clear and the mechanic judged the wind conditions to be right, they pushed the machine out of its shed and faced it into the breeze. Houdini climbed into the pilot’s seat, turned his cap backward and pulled it down tight. He clutched the wheel. His eyes narrowed in concentration, he set his jaw firmly and he turned his head and nodded to the mechanic, who spun the wood propeller. The engine fired. It was an Enfield 80-horsepower job, supposedly better than the one the Wrights themselves were using. Hardly daring to breathe, Houdini throttled the engine, idled it, throttled it again. Finally he held up his thumb. The mechanic ducked under the wings and pulled the wheel chocks. The craft slowly moved forward. Houdini breathed faster and faster as the Voisin picked up speed. Soon it was bumping along the ground and he could feel the sensitive wings take on an intelligence of their own, as if a disembodied presence had joined the enterprise. The machine lifted off the ground. He thought he was dreaming. He had to willfully restrain his emotions, commanding himself sternly to keep the wings level, to keep the throttle continuously in touch with the speed of the flight. He was flying! His feet worked the pedals, he clasped the control wheel and gently the rudder in front of him tilted down and the machine climbed the sky. He dared to look down: the earth was fifty feet below him. He no longer heard the ratcheting engine behind his ear. He felt the wind in his face and discovered he was shouting. The guy wires seemed to sing, then great wings above and below him nodded and dipped and played in the air with their incredibly gentle intelligence. The bicycle wheels spun slowly, idly in the breeze. He was flying over a stand of trees. Gaining confidence he put the craft into a difficult maneuver, a bank. The Voisin described a wide circle around the parade grounds. The he could see the mechanic standing in the distance, by the shed, raising both arms in salute. Coolly, Houdini leveled the wings, slipped under his breeze and began his descent. The moment the wheels touched down, the crudeness of the impact offended him. And when the machine rolled to a stop he wanted only to be airborne again.

On subsequent flights Houdini stayed in the air as much as ten or twelve minutes. That was virtually to challenge the fuel capacity of the plane. He seemed at times to drift as if suspended from the clouds over his head. He was able to see whole villages nestled below in the German countryside, and to follow his own shadow down incredibly straight roads lined with hedgerows. Once he flew high enough to be able to see in the distance the medieval skyline of Hamburg with flashes of the Elbe River. He was tremendously proud of his aeroplane. He wanted to make flying history.

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