Canada’s love affair with aviation began on a winter’s day in Nova Scotia, when a fragile plane took off from the ice-covered Bras d’Or Lake and flew for a half mile. The flight, on 23 February 1909, became an iconic moment in Canadian history.
What is little known is that this same plane, the Silver Dart, flew what is now considered the first military flight trials in Canada at Petawawa.
The story of the Silver Dart began with man’s desire to free himself from the bonds of earth. For hundreds of years, man had tried, with varied degrees of success, to gain flight. The French had succeeded with balloons in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and the great Leonardo da Vinci seriously considered the possibility of flight with his drawings for aircraft, including the Ornithopter, in the 15th century.
The race for flight gained momentum at the dawn of the 20th century. The Wright Brothers, Alberto Santos-Dumont and Samuel Cody all clamoured to be the first to fly the highest and the greatest distance. The Silver Dart was one of five aerodromes or planes built by the Aerial Experiment Association (A.E.A.), a group of four men picked by Alexander Graham Bell for their knowledge and experience: Casey Baldwin and John McCurdy were engineers interested in the complexities and possibilities of flight and who, as friends and undergraduates at the University of Toronto, had served in the Second Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers; American Glenn Curtiss was an authority on gasoline engines and a motorcycle race champion; Thomas Selfridge was a Lieutenant in the United States Army; and Bell was the great self-taught loner inventor of the “speaking telegraph”. The Association was actually suggested to Bell by his wife Mabel, who funded the group to the tune of $35,000.00.
Each man was credited with the design of an aircraft, although all helped to build each one. Selfridge had the bi-plane Red Wing, Baldwin the White Wing, and Curtiss the June Bug. McCurdy was credited with the Silver Dart. Each plane built upon the successes and failures of the plane before it. Probably one of the most important inventions credited to the A.E.A. was the development and use of hinged, controllable wing-tip flaps called ailerons, or “little wings” to control lateral movement.
The Silver Dart was built, like all the rest, at Hammondsport, New York, in the workshop of Glenn Curtiss. Its wingspan was just over 49 feet, its wing area was 420 square feet, and its weight, fully loaded, was approximately 800 pounds. It was made of bamboo, friction tape, wood steel tubes, wire and silver-coloured Japanese silk.
The Silver Dart first took to the air in Hammondsport on 06 December 1908, and flew ten more times before the turkey was served on Christmas Day that year. The following month the Dart was shipped to Bienn Bhreagh, Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the summer residence of Alexander Graham Bell.
On 23 February 1909, the Dart took off from the ice of Bras d’Or Lake, becoming the first heavier-than-air machine to fly in Canada. More flights followed, and by 31 March 1909, having done what they wanted to do, the A.E.A. was dissolved. Baldwin and McCurdy continued as partners, building Baddeck I and II.
By this time, the military began to take interest in the use of aircraft for military purposes. Bell had made a presentation to the Canadian Club in Ottawa in 1909 on the subject of flight. His speech was well received. The Minister of Finance, the Honourable W.S. Fielding stated, with a suspicion of humour, that, “Our own war department has not yet indulged in the luxury of an air ship. I do not know what will happen. Of course we have made our pious resolve against expenditure, but after the address that we have heard today, I fear that Sir Frederick Borden will have dangerous intentions upon the finance department.” The formal response of the military was a letter supporting the work of the Baldwin and McCurdy, but refusing to provide financial means to construct airships. The letter did offer the use of the “great camp” at Petawawa, and on 01 July 1909, Baldwin and McCurdy arrived in the Ottawa Valley.
They brought with them two aerodromes, the Silver Dart and Baddeck I. There is some disagreement amongst historians about the actual location of the trials, but in newspapers it is described as the “cavalry training area”, which leads this writer to the relatively flat terrain of Drury Plain.
According the Ottawa Citizen, a hanger constructed by the Royal Canadian Engineers, and the first built in Canada, was almost ready by 02 July 2009 and the assembly of the Silver Dart was proceeding. The aerodrome was equipped with a Curtiss 50 h.p., 8 cylinder water cooled engine. It is interesting to note that the Dart was to be used for testing the engine, while Baddeck I was to be used for the official trials.
The testing of the engine took place over a few days, and it worked so well that McCurdy and Baldwin decided to take the plane to the air on 02 August 1909. Four successful short flights followed, and it was on the fifth when a combination of error in judgement and sun caused the Silver Dart to crash during landing. The engine was salvaged, but the structure could not be repaired. McCurdy and Baldwin received minor injuries.
Baddeck I was quickly assembled with the assistance of soldiers of the Royal Canadian Engineers. It was expected that the aerodrome would gain a high speed of 50 mph. Amongst the dignitaries gathering for the trials was Colonel Fiset, Deputy Minister of Militia; Colonel Rutherford, Master of Ordnance; General MacDonald, Quartermaster General; Colonel Mackie; General Otter, Chief of General Staff, and Major Maunsell, Director General of Engineering.
After days of false starts and high winds, frustration amongst the media and onlookers was growing. Newspapers regaled their readers with stories of poor treatment by the military. Finally, on 12 August, Baddeck I flew, but only for 100 feet. The short flight seemed to impress the attending officers though. “If she can hop like that, she can fly”, stated General MacDonald.
Unfortunately, their luck did not hold out. In the early evening of 13 August, Baddeck I took off from Drury Plain. It rose to a height of 15 feet, hesitated, and then it settled backward, crash landing on its propeller, engine and running gear. The propeller was broken in two, and the rudder was torn off. The cause was likely the placement of the engine – too far aft. The plan was to repair the plane in Petawawa and try again. Within a day, Baldwin and McCurdy changed their minds, and the remains of the aerodrome were shipped back to Nova Scotia. It was their intention to return to Petawawa within the month to continue the trials, but they never returned.
In just a few days in a small town in the wilds of Ontario, three historical landmarks were reached: the first Canadian military aeronautical trials, the first passenger flight in Canada, and the first aircraft hanger built in Canada.
McCurdy later received this message from Lieutenant Colonel Sam Hughes, later to become the Minister of Militia and Defence: “…the aeroplane is an invention of the devil, and will never play any part in the defence of the nation, my boy!” Little did he know..!