Today in 1909, Canada’s flying history took off

On Feb. 23, 1909, engineer J.A.D. McCurdy piloted the Silver Dart—the first successful airplane flight by a Canadian—over the ice of Baddeck Bay, N.S.


 

    Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.

    “It’s the romance of aviation that interests people,” said J.A.D. McCurdy. In part two of this Maclean’s series from 1931, rewind to the thrilling exploits of J.A.D. McCurdy and F.W. Baldwin, who designed and built the first plane that started Canada’s flying history. Read part one here. Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

    In the first part of “Canada's First Airmen," published in Maclean's on Sept. 15, 1931, J. A. D. McCurdy and F. W. (Casey) Baldwin were encouraged and assisted by Alexander Graham Bell, Lieutenant Thomas Self ridge and Glen H. Curtiss. The chapter closed with the successful flights of the “June Bug" and the winning of the Scientific American Trophy.

    The only fly in the ointment of happiness and enthusiasm which the winning of the Scientific American Trophy engendered was the absence of Dr. Bell. It was decided, however, that no further flights would be made with the June Bug until a patent official had gone over the machine to see if there were any patentable features. In the meantime, Baldwin went back to rejoin Dr. Bell at Baddeck for the summer; Selfridge was recalled to Washington by the War Department; and McCurdy and Curtiss went to work on the fourth and last plane, which, when completed, was christened the Silver Dart. This machine was built on plans made by McCurdy and embodied all the best features of the preceding planes.

    That McCurdy was greatly enthused over the new airplane can be gathered from an extract of a letter to Mrs. Bell preserved among the bulletins.

    “You ask me why we thought of the name Silver Dart? Well, the surfaces are silver on one side, and the word ‘Dart’ will explain itself. Also we thought the combination sounded pretty good. She certainly is a beauty. At present the four wings are assembled and all the wiring done. The truck, with three wheels attached, is all ready to secure in place tomorrow, and she should then be ready to fly.”

    The wings of the Silver Dart were made longer and narrower than those of the other three planes, so that, as one observer described it, “It looked like a gigantic albatross.” Two passengers were, of course, counted upon.

    While McCurdy and his helpers busied themselves at the building of the Silver Dart, however, Curtiss decided that he would change the June Bug, with which he had won the Scientific American Trophy, into a seaplane. With this end in view, two light pontoons were constructed and fitted to the machine, which was then renamed the Loon. Although Curtiss made attempt after attempt to get the Loon off the water of Keuka Lake, every trial failed. It has since been learned that the pontoons used were too heavy for the engine to lift out of the water.

    The work of the association was rudely interrupted by a major tragedy on September 17, 1908, when Lieutenant Selfridge, who had been sent to observe the Wright brothers’ flights by the U. S. War Department, was killed in a crash at Washington, D.C., in which Orville Wright was also seriously injured. Selfridge was the first man in the world to be killed in an airplane crash, and his sudden passing took a great deal of the enthusiasm out of the work of the remaining members. He was given a military funeral, and since his death he has been honored by the Aero Club of America and several other organizations. Selfridge Field, the U. S. military flying camp, was named after this young pioneer of the air trails.

    Death Without Warning

    A graphic description of the accident in which Selfridge was killed is contained in the bulletins, having been written by W. S. Clime, an eyewitness of the tragedy:

    “For several complete circuits of the field the flight was uneventful. The novelty had worn off to such an extent that one no longer kept his eyes glued to the machine but only gave an upward glance when it went directly overhead. It was at such a time that Wright could be seen, hands on levers, looking straight ahead, and Lieutenant Selfridge to his right, arms folded and as cool as the daring aviator beside him.

    “While walking over to the aerodrome shed, there was a crack like a pistol shot coming from the air. Looking quickly up, I saw a piece of a propeller blade whirling off to the southward. Realizing instinctively that something terrible was about to happen, I stood rivetted to the spot with my eyes on the machine. For a brief period it kept on its course, then swerved to the left and took a swoop backward, then in an almost perpendicular manner it fell for half the distance to the ground. Suddenly righting itself, it regained for an instant its normal position, only to pitch forward and strike the ground, raising an immense cloud of dust which momentarily hid it from view.

    “The terrific impact reduced the structure into an inconceivable mass of wreckage. At topmost speed I ran over to where the machine lay, and found that two mounted soldiers had preceded me by a few seconds. I threw my camera down, caught hold of one of the curved surfaces, and with all my strength pushed it up and broke it. Mr. Wright was under it and only a few feet from me, apparently in great pain and moaning. He had fallen across a wire stay and one of the struts of the engine, and was suspended by his chest and stomach. His feet were barely touching the ground and his hands were hanging limp. Blood was streaming down his face and trickling in a stream from his chin, but he was conscious and feebly said, ‘Help me.’

    “Lieutenant Selfridge was lying on his back almost directly beneath Wright but a little to the right. One of the enlisted men reached over, caught Mr. Wright around the body and lifted him clear of the wreckage. It was then that he exclaimed, ‘Be careful of my leg.’ The two enlisted men and myself lifted and carried Mr. Wright away from the debris, and then turned back to the wrecked plane. We tried our utmost to reach Lieutenant Selfridge, who was lying on his back and had apparently struck the ground with the back of his head and the base of his spine. Wire stays, pieces of canvas and broken struts were piled in confusion around him, and it was impossible for the few at hand to do more than feebly attempt to reach him. He was unconscious, and if he spoke at all, I did not hear him.”

    One of the finest tributes paid to Selfridge was that of a hitherto unpublished letter from Mrs. Bell to the surviving members of the association two days after the tragedy. In part, it read:

    “I can’t get over Tom’s being taken. I can’t realize it; it doesn’t seem possible. Isn’t it heart-breaking? And yet it is better for him than to die as poor Langley did. He was so happy to the very end. I know he would have said he was having the time of his life, and, though he must have realized his danger in those last few seconds, he would still hope to escape, and he had no time for unavailing regrets. It was the happiest way death could have come to him now, but why need it have come now when he was ready to put to his country’s use all the results of his long, patient preparation? . . .

    “I am so sorry for you in this breaking of your beautiful association. But it was beautiful and the memory of it will endure—‘Bell, Curtiss, Baldwin, Selfridge and McCurdy.’ It was indeed a 'brilliant coterie,’ as one newspaper said. Do anything you think best, but let the A. E. A. be only these to the end. and then take some other name.”

    First Flight in Canada

    Following Seifridge’s death, a meeting was held at Washington at which the dead flyer’s father was present. As executor of his son’s estate, he agreed with the other members that the work of the association should be continued for a period of six months. Most of the equipment, including the Silver Dart and the Loon, was crated up and shipped to Baddeck, where nearly all the remaining work of the association was done. No attempts to carry more than one person were made in the Silver Dart after the Wright accident, but lead weights corresponding to a man’s weight were carried. In this manner, only one life was being risked.

    The citizens of Baddeck had by now come to realize the importance of having the experiments carried out there, and accordingly petitioned the Government to allow the Silver Dart and Loon into Canada without paying duty, which was high. Directly due to their representations, the two planes were brought in duty free, but had to be taken out again within a year.

    On February 23. 1909, McCurdy had his plane pulled out on the ice of Baddeck Bay, climbed in, and promptly took off for a flight of half a mile. This was the first flight of a flying machine in Canada. Added interest to the event was the fact that he, a Baddeck man, had drawn the plans, so that the machine which made the first flight in Canada was primarily a Canadian product. In honor of the occasion, the Baddeck Town Council presented to Dr. Bell, as head of the A. E. A., and McCurdy, as the “bold aviator,” engraved testimonials of esteem and good wishes, and included these in their historical records. Dr. Bell’s reply is interesting, in view of later developments:

    “It is very gratifying to me, and to all those associated with me, that the citizens of Baddeck should have recognized the historical importance of the flight. This may seem to be only a small matter at this time, but when flying machines have become common, and aerial locomotion a well recognized and established mode of transit, the origin of the art in Canada will become a matter of great historical interest, and people will look back to the flight made February 23, 1909, as the first flight of a flying machine in the Dominion of Canada. It is gratifying to me, as to the citizens of your little town, that the name of Baddeck will be indissolubly connected with that event.”

    In the second trial at Baddeck, McCurdy flew a distance of almost four and a half miles, making a complete circle of the bay, and at times flew higher than the tree tops. This was by far the most successful flight ever made by any member of the association, but in landing, one of the runners collapsed when the pilot swerved swiftly to avoid striking two little girls who had run out on the ice in front of the plane. The new Curtiss motor functioned perfectly during the trial.

    Among early flyers, turns were extremely hard to make, but with the Silver Dart McCurdy finally completed a figure eight, the first man in the world to do so. He tells about this first figure eight in another letter to Mrs. Bell :

    "Last evening about five o’clock I attempted a flight. Everything worked beautifully, and, much to the pleasure of everybody, I was enabled to describe the figure eight, after covering a distance of about two miles. I took off and made a turn successfully, fully intending to land when I got back to my starting place. The engine sounded all right, however, and the people were excited and yelling, so I decided I might as well attempt another tum. I could see the people with their mouths going, although I couldn’t hear anything for the noise of the motor. Am becoming more competent with each flight, and although I’m afraid you will think this is boasting, feel sure I shall soon be able to fly almost anywhere.”

    Disappearing Prizes

    Their acknowledged purpose of “getting a man into the air” having been accomplished, not once but on many occasions, the Aerial Experiment Association was reluctantly dissolved on the stroke of midnight, March 31, 1909. Four of the five members, all except Dr. Bell, had flown, and as the project was not in the first place meant to be a commercial proposition, the necessity for dissolution was apparent. Curtiss intended to concentrate on the manufacture of airplane engines; Baldwin was intent on hydroplane structures and other inventions which he was to pursue at Dr. Bell’s Baddeck laboratory; McCurdy wanted to “see the world’’ a little more, and Selfridge was dead.

    During the next five years McCurdy flew at exhibitions, fairs and air meets all over the American continent. He flew in and out of fields that present-day flyers would never attempt to land in. There were no aerodromes or landing fields in those days, and most of the flying was done from race tracks.

    “I’ve been back looking at some of the fields we used to fly out of in the early days,” Canada’s first flyer told the writer with a reminiscent smile, “and I sometimes think we were crazy. Some of the fields were so short, in fact, that we used to have two men, each holding one end of a long rope stretched across the field, so that when we landed the machine would run into the rope and bring us to a stop before we hit the fence. It was about the only sure way to stop, and even then it wasn’t so sure. I remember once Lincoln Beechey ran through a fence and completely smashed his machine because one of the men supposed to be holding the rope walked away and left it.”

    Beechey, in McCurdy’s opinion, was the best flyer there was in those early days.

    During his years of flying McCurdy has had only one accident in which he was injured, and then he escaped with a broken nose and minor bruises. This accident occurred in the summer of 1909, when he and Baldwin brought two planes, one the Silver Dart, to Petawawa, where a representative of the Canadian Government was deputed to look its possibilities over.

    “Of course,” Mr. McCurdy relates, “if we had known what the ground was like at Petawawa, we would never have attempted it. But we got there, and, rather than disappoint everyone, went through with it. The only place we could possibly get off the ground was from a narrow, rutted road. Petawawa itself was out of the question, the ground was so rough and rolling. The first flight, in the Silver Dart, was a success, but in landing on the rough ground the undercarriage was damaged, and the second plane was brought out. The flight with this one ended disastrously. The plane, landing in a deep rut, overturned and was demolished. I got out of it with a broken nose and felt I was extremely fortunate.”

    These flights apparently failed to impress the Canadian Government officials, so McCurdy continued his “barnstorming,” as it was known, all over the continent. We find him at Valois, a few miles north of Montreal, at the first air meet ever held in Canada in 1910. Later in the same year he turned up with his plane in Mexico, and just before the New Year he returned to New York to conduct experiments, during which he sent a wireless message from his plane, in flight, to the New York World. The return message was not received, however. Then, in March, 1911, he added another mark of distinction to his already lengthy record by piloting the plane from which were sent and received the first wireless messages. This happened in Florida.

    Perhaps one of the most notable feats of aviation ever accomplished, yet withal one of the least known, was McCurdy’s flight from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, in February, 1911, for a $10,000 prize. This was the first flight ever made over open sea on the North American continent. McCurdy describes it in detail, as well as its aftermath.

    “Before leaving Key West I went into a tinsmith’s shop and had him make two long, narrow tubes, airtight, which I strapped to the underside of the lower wings. In addition to this safety measure, lest I should fall into the water, I secured a thirty-seven-inch automobile tire inner tube, and pumped it up until it looked like a balloon, then tied it securely under the plane. I figured this would keep me afloat until I was picked up, in case the motor should fail, and it was a good thing for me that I took these precautions.

    “The start was made from the beach at Key West, and everything went along fine for a time. The air was bumpy over the sea, but the engine gave no sign of trouble until we came within half a mile of Havana. Then it stopped suddenly, and literally went to pieces, due to fatigue. Engines of those days were not the reliable affairs they are today, but it had been working continuously for two hours and twenty-six minutes, which I later found was a world’s record endurance flight at that time. At any rate, I managed to land on the water without upsetting, although the waves were rolling ten or twelve feet high, and managed to stay afloat until picked up by a Cuban destroyer. I was unharmed, and so, apparently, was the plane, but it was badly damaged when the sailors hauled it aboard the destroyer.

    “I was taken to a hostel and treated with the greatest courtesy. Later I received a note from the President of Cuba informing me that the presentation of the prize would take place the next evening at one of the largest theatres in Havana. I was to receive a cheque for $10,000, as well as a handsome silver cup to commemorate the flight. Of course, I was there. Several persons, including the President, made speeches which I could not understand, and then I was called on the platform to receive the prize. The President handed me a huge envelope, covered with ribbons and official seals, as well as the cup, which I left standing on the platform, as I thought, for the time being. I made my way back to the box, and once there, opened up the envelope. All it contained was a torn piece of a newspaper. And I never got the cheque or anything else,” he added, “although a picture of it appeared in all the Cuban newspapers as well as in some United States papers. I didn’t even get the cup, for when I went back to obtain it, it had also disappeared.”

    “Crashing” A Wedding

    Another experience of Mr. McCurdy of interest to Canadians, and Torontonians especially, followed an air meet at Hamilton in 1911. Heretofore no one had crossed Lake Ontario by plane, so he decided to fly across the lake to Toronto. He admits that he was really scared on this occasion, as he had taken no precautions such as he had on his Cuba flight in case he fell into the water, and he realized after he started that his chances of being picked up by boat were small. “Toronto certainly looked good to me when I finally sighted it,” he declared afterward.

    He had overlooked another matter on this occasion, and that was, where was he going to land on his arrival at Toronto? He had a recollection, from his university days, of a wide beach along the lake front near Ashbridge’s Bay which he knew would be an ideal place to land, so he made for this spot. Imagine his consternation, on arriving, to find the beach dotted with children bathing. A landing here was out of the question, so he made a circle around Toronto Bay, hoping to find even a small stretch of sand where he could get down without hurting anyone. He knew his gas supply was not sufficient to carry him over the city, so that he must find a place somewhere around the bay. Then, just as he reached Ward’s Island, his motor stopped. There was nothing to do but land in the water as close to shore as he could, and he was preparing to do this when, miraculously, the motor started again. He completed another circle of the bay, then flew farther east, at last spotting an unpeopled strip of beach near the old gas works, which he estimated to be about fifty feet long. Down he came, landed on the strip of sand, rolled the length of it, and stopped not two feet from the verandah of a house where a wedding was in progress. The bridal couple and their guests made him welcome, and thus he bore on his brow another record, that of being the first man in the world to “crash” a wedding by air.

    Later McCurdy made the first airplane flights ever held in Mexico City, and in 1912 he developed a water machine which he flew near New York, carrying passengers. Among famous people he carried in this seaplane were Ralph Pulitzer, noted publisher, and wife, and the well-known writer, Ida Tarbell.

    “It’s the romance of aviation that interests people,” he explained on being questioned as to why he took up flying as a career. “I’ve been flying for twenty-three years, and yet, even now, whenever a plane passes over I look up and watch it. That first flight gave me a great thrill, but I can recapture the sensation every time I go up.”

    Today, McCurdy is president of the Curtiss-Reid Aircraft Company of Canada. Baldwin is head of the Bell Laboratory at Baddeck, working on new inventions. Curtiss, before he died last year, had become a world known figure through the manufacturing of airplane engines. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell’s achievements are too well-known to need mention here, and no one knows to what heights Selfridge would have climbed had he not been killed almost at the start of his career. The Canadian-born members of the association are the only ones alive today, and Canadians should be proud of the part they have played in the advancement of aviation.

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