A Century Aloft: The Rise Of The Silver Dart

Douglas McCurdy flies the Silver Dart over the ice on Baddeck Bay, N.S. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA061741]

Douglas McCurdy flies the Silver Dart over the ice on Baddeck Bay, N.S.

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Only 66 years separate American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s memorable moonscape statement from the first flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright. When engine-powered flight began with the Wright brothers on an isolated North Carolina beach in 1903, it developed very quickly. Less than six years later, Henri Blériot flew across the English Channel. Yet, in the development of heavier-than-air powered flying machines, a significant Canadian contribution is often overlooked.

The story of powered flight in Canada starts with Alexander Graham Bell and his insatiable thirst for knowledge, which began at an early age. As a teenager, he designed a method of removing husks from corn after his friend’s father asked the boys, “Why don’t you do something useful with your time?” Later, Bell worked as teacher of the deaf in Boston, where he met his future wife, Mabel Hubbard, 10 years his junior and deaf since the age of five. During this time, he experimented with telegraphy, which in 1876 resulted in one of the greatest inventions in history—the telephone. He married Mabel the next year.

Bell’s interests ranged widely, making him a generalist whose mind always worked in overdrive. His restless intellect never stayed on one subject for long. Because of the sheer volume of his interests, methodically recorded and minutely described in numerous notebooks, he did not manage to see many of them through to fruition. In fact, some of his concepts still remain to be developed.


Alexander Graham Bell.

After a chance visit to Cape Breton Island in the summer of 1885, he and Mabel fell in love with the area, attracted by its large Scottish population settled among rolling hills and windy seacoasts, all of which were suggestive of Bell’s childhood in Scotland. Bell found the temperatures especially attractive; heat bothered him, and cooling breezes from lakes and oceans blew continuously across the Cape Breton hills.

Bell purchased land on Red Head, a wooded peninsula across the bay from Baddeck, which offered a glorious panoramic view of the Bras d’Or Lakes. There, he and Mabel built an extensive summer estate he named Beinn Bhreagh, Gaelic for “beautiful mountain,” which grew and developed under Mabel’s dedicated management. A rambling, turreted Victorian expanse of a home, invariably crowded with visitors, became its social centre. Completed in 1893 at a cost of $22,000, the Halifax Chronicle described it as “the finest mansion in Eastern Canada.”

In its research laboratory and workshop, and on its nearby fields and waters, Bell and his colleagues carried out several of their most impressive aerial experiments. In the process, they also recorded some of their greatest achievements.

Since boyhood, Bell had been fascinated by the concept of flight. In 1896, he observed a model aircraft, built by Smithsonian Institute secretary Samuel Langley, as it took flight in Washington. That was when Bell decided, “I shall have to make experiments upon my own account in Cape Breton. Can’t keep out of it. It will be all UP with us someday.”

Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory near Baddeck, N.S. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA024364]

Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory near Baddeck, N.S.

Meanwhile, other aviation pioneers were also attempting to get a man into the air. Bell didn’t learn of the Wright brothers’ 1903 feat until two years later, as the Wrights had conducted their experiments in relative secrecy. Their success spurred him on, and he was determined to continue his work at his well-equipped Beinn Bhreagh labora­tory. Because engines of the era were not powerful enough to keep both a machine and a man aloft, Bell had turned to kites, which he reasoned would lower the risk of death associated with earlier flight trials. He also believed that takeoff and landing were the most dangerous stages of flying.

Bell commenced his unmanned kite flights in 1891, much to the amusement of the locals. A boatman rowing a visitor to Beinn Bhreagh described the estate’s kite-flying experiments as “the greatest foolishness I ever did see.” The kites, of several different sizes and shapes—circular, polygonal and triangular—all looked quite unorthodox, but Bell favoured a tetrahedron of four equilateral triangles joined together to form a pyramid.

By 1903, Bell resolved to build an engine-powered kite capable of lifting a man. To accomplish this, he needed someone with an engineering background. Bell’s secretary at Beinn Bhreagh was Arthur McCurdy, editor of the local newspaper. His hard-working son, John Alexander Douglas, had grown up on the Bell estate and assisted in kite experiments. At the University of Toronto, one of McCurdy’s fellow engineering students and closest friends was Frederick Walker Baldwin; a brilliant young Torontonian nicknamed “Casey” from his time at Ridley College, St. Catharines. There, the boys assigned sobriquets based on famous sports characters of the time. Baldwin’s name came from the well-known 1881 baseball poem by Ernest L. Thayer, Casey at the Bat.

Baldwin, an outstanding all-round athlete whose slight build belied his great strength, had already developed an interest in powered flight and the technical skill to experiment with it. A descendant of Robert Baldwin, the early 19th-century political reformer who helped establish responsible government in the Province of Canada in March 1848, Baldwin was also eager to help his nation make its mark in aeronautics.

Bell and his wife Mabel in their motorboat at Baddeck in 1914. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA089114]

Bell and his wife Mabel in their motorboat at Baddeck in 1914.

In 1906, Bell’s wife, Mabel, who followed her husband’s work closely, suggested to McCurdy that he bring one of his fellow university students back to Baddeck for a couple of weeks, someone who might be interested in what her husband was doing. Stories about Bell’s work captivated Baldwin, so when McCurdy, four years younger and a year behind him at college, invited him to come home for a visit during the summer of 1906, Baldwin jumped at the chance.

Bell, 59, impressed with the 24-year-old’s enthusiasm for his aerial experiments, invited him to stay. Baldwin accepted, and the couple of weeks he intended to stay at Baddeck turned into 40 years—literally, the rest of his life.

Chance brought Bell to Baddeck, and chance intervened again to bring Baldwin there; in both cases, it was an extremely productive relationship. The contrasting qualities of the portly, bearded, elderly inventor and the slim, fresh-faced, youthful engineer combined to create an exceptionally effective team, with Baldwin playing both sounding board and stimulant to Bell’s overactive brain. Baldwin’s practical approach brought some of Bell’s more fanciful ideas down to earth, turning them into functional devices. With Baldwin at his side, Bell proceeded to construct an “aerodrome,” his preferred term for a flying machine. Bell maintained that an “aeroplane” was merely a wing or lifting surface, while an “aerodrome” was an entire machine.

To help him realize his dream, Bell’s wife suggested that he get additional young flight enthusiasts involved, especially those with engineering and other technical knowledge. As usual, Bell listened to his wife’s advice and gathered other bright young men besides Baldwin and McCurdy around him at Baddeck.

First Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, a highly likable and quietly determined American army officer with an interest in powered flight, came as an official observer for the United States Army. Glenn Hammond Curtiss of Hammondsport, N.Y., a scowling, aloof, 29-year-old self-made designer, builder and prize-winning racer of motorcycles, joined the team as engine expert. As Bell described it, “So, there we were, living in my house, myself, an elderly man, surrounded by brilliant young men, each an expert in his own line. We became very friendly. My wife became very much attracted to them all. She suggested that we form an association….”

From left: Glenn Curtiss, Douglas McCurdy, Alexander Graham Bell, Casey Baldwin and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C017337]

From left: Glenn Curtiss, Douglas McCurdy, Alexander Graham Bell, Casey Baldwin and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge.

The five men accepted Mabel Bell’s proposal to establish a formal organization, creating the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). She had recently received $20,000 from the sale of an inherited property and offered to finance them towards their goal: to onstruct a “practical aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man.” Mabel’s sensible suggestion made her the first woman in history to propose, establish and fund a research group. On October 1, 1907, the AEA came into being for a period of one year. Bell was chairman, Baldwin chief engineer, Selfridge secretary, McCurdy treasurer and assistant engineer and Curtiss director of experiments. Bell provided his laboratory facilities at no cost.

After first constructing Cygnet I, a massive tetrahedral kite that lifted Selfridge 50 metres into the air before unceremoniously dropping him into the chilly waters of the Bras d’Or Lakes, the four young men went to Hammondsport, to the workshops of Curtiss Motorcycles. There, they each designed and built a heavier-than-air machine, while sharing their knowledge and discoveries. Their first aircraft was Selfridge’s Red Wing, named after its red silk covering. When Baldwin flew it for 20 seconds on March 12, 1908, it was the first public demonstration of powered flight in North America. It also made Baldwin the first Canadian to fly an aircraft.

Baldwin’s White Wing was next, equipped with two innovative firsts for North America: ailerons—moveable wing tips—which had been suggested by Bell, and a three-wheeled under­carriage. Although Baldwin flew White Wing on its inaugural flight, they all took turns before McCurdy crashed it on his first attempt. The third machine was Curtiss’ June Bug. The AEA entered it in the competition for the Scientific American Trophy, to be awarded for the first successful public flight of one kilometre. At Hammondsport on July 4, 1908, Curtiss won the prestigious award piloting June Bug.

The Canadian Aerodrome Company conducts a demonstration at Camp Petawawa in August 1909. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA020260]

The Canadian Aerodrome Company conducts a demonstration at Camp Petawawa in August 1909.

McCurdy built the next machine, which had several modifications from earlier models. He christened it Silver Dart, after the metallic waterproofing compound that covered its silken balloon-cloth wings. The rest of the machine was made of wood, steel tubing, bamboo, wire and friction tape. It was powered by a water-cooled V-8 engine capable of producing about 40 horsepower, but had no brakes. The engine drove a pusher-type propeller that had been carved from a single piece of wood.

While work on the Silver Dart continued, Selfridge died from injuries sustained in the crash of an airplane flown by Orville Wright, who was badly injured. Selfridge became aviation’s first passenger fatality. Upset by the loss of their friend, the others decided they would continue the work of the AEA for six more months, until March 1909. Mabel contributed another $10,000.

In late January 1909, the men dis­assembled Silver Dart and shipped it to Baddeck by train. On Feb. 23, the aircraft was ready for its Canadian audition. It was towed onto the snow-free ice at Baddeck Bay, with McCurdy at the controls and the entire village watching. After an aborted first attempt due to a broken fuel line, the fragile aircraft slid along the ice and lifted nine metres into the brilliant, bone-chilling winter air, much to the spectators’ absolute astonishment. It flew for 800 metres at 65 kilometres per hour—the first successful flight of a flying machine in Canada. An ecstatic Bell sent telegrams to the news centres of the world announcing their achievement.

Several years later, when McCurdy was lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, he told his aide-de-camp, Squadron Leader Jim Lovelace, that flying the Silver Dart “was just like being on a high” after a couple of shots of whisky, and he “wanted to do it three or four more times.”

After his first historic flight, McCurdy flew Silver Dart on March 10 over two circular courses for a total distance of more than 32 kilometres. Then, at midnight on March 31, the AEA ceased to exist. Its members passed a resolution thanking Mabel for her unstinting support, which “contributed very materially to any success that the Association may have attained” and expressed their “highest appreciation of her loving and sympathetic devotion without which the work of the Association would have come to naught.”

Despite its short existence, the AEA—five inquiring men supported by an equally inquisitive woman—had chalked up considerable aerial achievements. According to Dr. John Parkin, Bell and Baldwin’s technical biographer, its members made “a major contribution to man’s conquest of the air,” one “out of all proportion to its size, life, and resources” ranking “in precedence next to the Wright brothers.” In Bell’s words, the AEA was a “co-operative, scientific association, not for gain but for the love of art and doing what we can to help one another.”

The Silver Dart is pulled out onto the ice for trials in December 1908. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA122520]

The Silver Dart is pulled out onto the ice for trials in December 1908.

McCurdy flew Silver Dart about 300 more times and formed the short-lived Canadian Aerodrome Company with Baldwin, hoping to interest the military in powered flight. On Aug. 2, 1909, McCurdy demonstrated the Silver Dart for the Canadian Army at Camp Petawawa, Ont., with Baldwin as his passenger, resulting in the first official passenger flight in Canada. Unfortunately, during these demonstrations, Silver Dart crashed on a poorly prepared landing field and never flew again. Thankfully, neither McCurdy nor Baldwin was injured.

In 1959, the RCAF commemorated the 50th anniversary of powered flight in Canada by building and flying an exact replica of Silver Dart, which is now on display at Ottawa’s Canada Aviation Museum. Another replica, which was built for the 75th anniversary in 1984, is in the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum near Halifax’s R.L. Stanfield International Airport. During this year’s 100th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, Baddeck will play host to aviation enthusiasts from all over the world as they celebrate this significant centen­nial at several events and activities.

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