Ready, Set, Fly!

Scene Description: Poppa sits down in a chair, and Nana takes some of the packages into the kitchen. Mark jumps up to grab a fishing rod lying against the wall beside the painting of the Silver Dart....

Mark: Hey, Poppa, is this a new painting? I don’t remember seeing it before.

Poppa: You’re pretty observant, Mark! Nana and I went to an air show last month, and there were all kinds of paintings and prints for sale. Many of them showed important moments in Canada’s aviation history, and I just couldn’t pass up this print of the Silver Dart.

Mark: (puzzled) What’s so important about the Silver Dart?

Poppa: The Silver Dart was the first powered airplane to fly in Canada, way back in 1909: that’s around a hundred years ago! What a day that must have been...

A.E.A. Silver Dart

Mark: It looks a bit weird to me.

Poppa: It looks strange to us because back then, airplanes were still at the experimental stage. You should see some of the other flying machines that were invented around that time!

Man in a Puiseux pedal powered airplane.
(CAvM AH-801)

Count Jacques de Lesseps's monoplane, La Frégate.
(CAvM AH-524)

Poppa: For most people, building an airplane was just a dream—not something that could be achieved in their lifetime. They couldn’t have imagined our modern-day airplanes.

Crew adjusting the A.E.A. June Bug.
(CAvM 5317)

Kress aircraft.
(CAvM AH-514)

Shepherds watching a Borel Morane fly overhead, France.
(CAvM AH-113)

Mark: Where did the Silver Dart fly? All that snow and ice in the picture makes it look pretty cold, and dangerous!

Poppa: The Silver Dart took off on a frozen lake, Bras d’Or Lake, near Baddeck, Cape Breton (that’s in Nova Scotia), on February 23, 1909.

The pilot, J. A. D. McCurdy, belonged to a special organization called the Aerial Experiment Association, or the A.E.A., for short. His friend Casey Baldwin was also a member, along with Glenn Curtiss and Thomas Selfridge from the United States.

J.A.D. McCurdy piloting an aircraft.
(CAvM 2177)

The A.E.A. was actually started by someone you might have heard of: Alexander Graham Bell. He formed the association in 1907, and it was funded by his wife, Mabel.

Claire: Wait a minute, Poppa, I learned all about Alexander Graham Bell in school—I thought he invented the telephone. Didn’t the Wright Brothers invent the airplane?

Poppa: You’re right, Claire. Bell is most famous for inventing the telephone, but he was also a pioneer in early aviation. One thing to remember about Bell is that he was a very talented inventor! And he was determined to build a flying machine that could take off and land safely.

Members of the A.E.A. with White Wing.
(CAvM 17378)

Bell’s colleagues brought other skills to the A.E.A. McCurdy and Baldwin had just graduated as engineers from the University of Toronto. The members of the team from the United States were also very smart: Curtiss was an engine expert, and Selfridge was an engineer in the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, Selfridge died in an airplane accident before the Silver Dart was built, but his work helped make it a success.

All the A.E.A. members were inspired by other aviation experimenters or scientists of their time. Otto Lilienthal, for example, had conducted glider experiments in Germany in the late 1800s in order to study the properties of air, and various wing shapes.

Glenn Curtiss at controls of A.E.A. June Bug.
(CAvM 5319)

Mark: What’s a glider?

Dream of Flight

Poppa: A glider is a type of airplane, but it doesn’t have an engine. It uses the wind to stay up in the air.

Mark: Sounds like fun. I’d love to spend my days figuring out how to make a machine that could fly. Were other people interested in flying back then?

Poppa: Oh yes! Around the same time that Lilienthal was experimenting in Germany, Octave Chanute was also designing gliders and documenting their flights in the United States. And, like Lilienthal, he was keen to learn about flight control. There were experimenters in other parts of the world, too, such as Australia, New Zealand, France and England.

Ottos Push
(CAvM 1998-0869-001)

Claire: But how did Bell and the other A.E.A. members find out about those experiments? They didn’t have television or the Internet then, did they?

Poppa: Definitely not! But word spread easily enough. Specialists in the aviation field would correspond with one another and attend international meetings. And of course they could read scientific journals to learn about the latest developments.

Page from W.R. Turnbull’s notebook.
(CAvM Turnbull-1)

Both Lilienthal and Chanute made detailed notes about their glider experiments, and published their findings in such journals. Those who were interested in the new technologies—such as Bell and the other A.E.A. members, along with Orville and Wilbur Wright in the United States—were all influenced by their reports.

Page from W.R. Turnbull’s notebook.
(CAvM Turnbull-2)

Claire: I guess we take it for granted that our news comes from television and radio, but back then, without those things, people had to do a whole lot more reading.

Poppa: Yes, they did and we haven’t even mentioned books on the subject. In the mid-1890s, Chanute wrote a book called Progress in Flying Machines. In fact, I have a copy of it over there.

Octave Chanute.
(CAvM AH-1598)

Mark: You have a book that’s over a hundred years old?

Poppa: Oh no, my copy is from the late 1990s. It’s such an amazing resource that it’s been reprinted many times, although I imagine there are still some originals kicking around.

(CAvM 31130)

If you’re interested in the very early days of aviation, Mark, I can lend it to you. Chanute was a good writer, and you’ll find lots of information in there. He described almost every aviation experiment conducted up to 1893! Chanute’s work inspired the Wright Brothers to design and build the airplane that in December 1903 made the first successful flight. The Wright Brothers were the owners of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio but their dream had been to fly aircraft. Chanute encouraged that dream, giving them advice and help.

Mark: That’s neat: so all that work helped the A.E.A. to design and produce the Silver Dart? Did the association keep records of their experiments too?

Pilot in Cygnet II.
(CAvM 7121)

Poppa: Yes, they did. It was essential that the A.E.A. document their own successes and failures so that they could design better and better airplanes. In total, they built four airplanes, each one designed by a different member of the team. The Silver Dart was the last one.

A.E.A. Silver Dart

The earliest airplanes weren’t failures, though, since they taught the team what worked and what didn’t, so that they could eventually build the Silver Dart. It was designed and flown by McCurdy.

Mark: It sure took a lot of work to start flying airplanes!

Testing the A.E.A. White Wing.
(CAvM 5318)

Poppa: You’re right about that! Airplanes didn’t just "take off"! It was a very exciting time, with lots of ups and downs! (winks at the kids)

Claire: Poppa, (laughing) that’s silly.

Poppa: (laughing) Well, your old Poppa’s allowed to be silly sometimes. And anyway, it’s true: although hundreds of people from around the world tried building flying machines, only a few succeeded!

As you can tell, there were many challenges to building airplanes in the early days, and the first one was finding the money to do so! Luckily, Bell’s wife was generous enough to help the A.E.A. out on that front. Many others who dreamed of flying weren’t so lucky.

Mark: What else were they faced with?

Poppa: Technology! Designing an engine for the flying machine that was light, but still powerful enough to lift the plane into air, was a huge challenge. Until the first airplanes were invented, the only way people could "get into the air" was in a balloon or an airship.

Ground crew inflating a gas balloon.
(CAvM AH-1239)

Those crafts used lighter-than-air-gases to lift them off the ground. Although airships used engines, they were fairly heavy—too heavy for an airplane of that era.

Flying in a gas balloon.
(CAvM AH-1294)

Claire: Why was the engine so important? Was it so they could go faster?

Detail of A.E.A. Silver Dart engine and propeller.
(CAvM 23623)

Poppa: Yes, but it was more than just that. The engine was needed to get the airplane off the ground and remain in flight! But because the early engines were heavy and not very powerful, the design of the airplane needed to allow for this extra weight. Wings needed to be designed to create enough lift to keep the airplane flying.

Working with one of Alexander Graham Bell’s experimental kites.
(CAvM 7128)

It was also a big challenge to control an airplane once it was in the air! And of course being able to land in one piece was important; that was a matter that Bell was especially concerned about. Did you know that, even before he formed the A.E.A., Bell designed kites, in order to get a better understanding of the wind and air currents?

Bell was also in contact with a Canadian engineer from New Brunswick, Wallace Rupert Turnbull, who was experimenting with what he called the "airscrew," and which we know today as the propeller. The propeller may seem like a small piece of the airplane puzzle, but coming up with an efficient design for it took a lot of time and effort.

W.R. Turnbull posing with an Avro 504K at Camp Borden, Ontario, 1927.
(CAvM 2432)

Turnbull built the first wind tunnel in Canada, in order to test wing shapes and propeller designs under a constant wind speed. He also visited Baddeck, where Bell spent much of his time, and gave the A.E.A. advice on aero-engines. It’s hard for us to imagine designing and building an entire plane from scratch! There are hundreds of parts to an airplane, and the A.E.A. had to create them all—and fit them all together.

W.R. Turnbull’s workshop, Rothesay, New Brunswick.
(CAvM 17657)

In the airplanes that the A.E.A. built, the engine and the propeller, combined with an ability to steer the aircraft, gave the pilot freedom to go in whichever direction he pleased. An airplane was certainly different from a balloon!

Interior of W.R. Turnbull's workshop, Rothesay, New Brunswick.
(CAvM 18678)

Claire: But getting back to the painting, Poppa: all the people seem to be standing around. Is that because they’ve never seen an airplane fly before?

Poppa: You’re right, Claire. Almost 150 people—most of the inhabitants of the town of Baddeck—came out in the cold to see the Silver Dart fly, and they were spellbound! Can you imagine what that moment must have been like? Even kids your age were there, since school was let out for the big event!

A.E.A. Silver Dart replica in flight.
(CAvM 8246)

After a few fits and starts, the airplane motored across the frozen lake...all eyes were glued to the Silver Dart as it finally took off into the air! The onlookers were amazed, some of them tried to chase after the airplane on their skates!

After the historic flight, Bell invited the crowd of people back to his laboratory, where he served them sandwiches and one of his favourite drinks, "raspberry vinegar." He made a speech to honour the special occasion.

Beinn Bhreagh, the Nova Scotia home of Alexander Graham Bell.
(CAvM 11564)

(CAvM 17378)

Mark: But wait, how did the crowd know that this plane was going to fly? What made them come out on this particular day?

Poppa: The team tested the Silver Dart a few times in the United States before bringing it back to Canada. Once they knew they had a winner, they brought it here to demonstrate. Canadians across the country were caught up in the excitement. The success of the Silver Dart created a real buzz about what aviation could do for Canada.

Claire: The team must have been really smart. It would be so difficult to build an airplane without any instructions!

A.E.A Silver Dart in winter.
(CAvM 23624)

Poppa: Yes, they were smart, and determined! They worked hard to get the Silver Dart up in the air, but it was well worth the wait.

Claire: I’m glad all those inventors worked so hard. I love flying with you and Nana, and if the airplane hadn’t been invented, we couldn’t do that.

Poppa: That’s true, and Nana and I love flying with you kids, too! But we also use airplanes for so many other things. Canada is a gigantic country, and many of the areas people live in are hard to get to overland, and so we use airplanes to bring them supplies. We also need airplanes to take us to our vacation spots, as well as to visit people all over the world. And airplanes can transport patients to hospitals, and carry mail all across the country, as well as overseas. Plus the military, as you know, uses airplanes for all sorts of different purposes.

But you need to remember that the first airplanes couldn’t fly very far, or very fast. In the early days of aviation, no one really knew how this new technology was going to be used. Some people doubted those strange flying machines had a future at all!

Mark: So, Poppa, how did they get from those rickety old things to the kinds of airplanes we have now? They look so different...

Assembling Baddeck II biplane, Montreal Air Meet,1910.
(CAvM 4263)

Poppa: Well, you see, the Silver Dart flight in 1909 set Canadians dreaming about all the ways in which airplanes could be used. That year was a significant one for aviation all over the world. In France, a man named Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel, from France to Britain! It was also the year of the first air show and the first aircraft exhibition in France. Back home in Canada, daredevil pilots, known as "barnstormers," performed in front of huge crowds at exhibitions and air meets. At the Montreal Air Meet in 1910, spectators saw all manner of airplanes, some from as far away as France. So many people had never seen an airplane before, and it was thrilling to watch those early flights.

Military personnel watching a Farman aircraft in flight.
(CAvM AH-433)

Count Jacques de Lesseps's Bleriot XI monoplane, Montreal Air Meet, 1910.
(CAvM 1937)

You know, it wasn’t long after the Silver Dart’s initial flight in Canada, about six years later, I guess, that Canada’s first flight training school opened near Toronto, and a plane called the Curtiss F flying boat was introduced. After those first flights, things changed pretty quickly.

Curtiss "F" Flying Boat: the Maple Leaf

Curtiss F flying boat in flight at the Curtiss Aviation School, ca. 1915.
(CAvM 5096)

Curtiss F flying boat on shore.
(CAvM 1334)

Come and look at some of the early flying "creations." Here’s the Burgess-Dunne, brought to Canada from the United States by Ernest Janney in 1914. It was Canada’s first military airplane, but it wasn’t a great success, and it never flew in battle.

Burgess Dunne

And here’s the Curtiss Canada bomber, which was the first military airplane designed in Canada. Imagine flying one of these machines! They certainly conjure up the earliest days of flying! Sadly, it never came to anything, either.

Curtiss Canada Bomber

Mark: They don’t look very safe, Poppa. What kind of airplane did you fly?

Poppa: Well, thankfully, Mark, my flying days in the military were much later, when airplanes had changed a whole lot!

Mark: How about we go fishing, and you can tell us more about your time in the air force?

Poppa: That’s sounds like a great idea; I’ll get my tackle box!