When one hears Houdini referred to as a “daredevil,” one pictures the escape artist dangling from a skyscraper in a straitjacket or plunging, manacled, into an icy river. But his heroics reached greater heights than that: Houdini was as a pioneering aviator, the 25th pilot to fly a powered aircraft!
The idea for including an airplane scene in my thriller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House hit me after I saw a scene from his 1919 movie The Grim Game, in which he climbs from one biplane to another in midair — the only surviving segment of the film. Doing a little digging, I learned just how avid an aviation buff he was.
As early as 1908, just five years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, he offered $5,000 for one of their planes, according to The Secret Life of Houdini, a book I found an invaluable resource in my research. His plan was to leap, handcuffed, from a plane over London, escape from the manacles on the way down, open a parachute and land safely at Piccadilly Circus. That plan was scrapped but the following year, he purchased a Voisin E.N.V. 238, built by the French Voisin brothers, for $5,000 and in November of 2009 made his first flight, over a German army parade ground in Hamburg.
The magician’s aerial exploits attracted notoriety among impresarios, and so when he went on tour Australia in 2010, his contract called for him to make 10 exhibition flights. He had the honor of being the first person to fly on the continent. An enormous crowd gathered to watch him soar above Digger’s Rest on Mar 18, 2010.
Houdini’s triumph had a lasting impact. The success of a flight by a self-trained amateur raised concern that Australia, long thought to be too isolated to face attack, was vulnerable to an assault by air, especially from Japan. As a result, the government began to forge a fledgling air force.
Houdini never got a chance to do his parachute escape in real life, but I found the notion so captivating, I included one in my novel!