Aero Club of Canada — Winnipeg-based organization wanted to get a flying machine into the air

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

It’s one thing to catch the flying bug, but it’s quite another to get a workable flying machine into the air. That’s what the Winnipeg-based Aero Club of Canada quickly discovered in 1909.

The club was formed on March 31, 1909, in the Winnipeg Industrial Bureau Building with the “purpose of assisting and promoting the practical study of aeronautics by encouraging Canadian inventors, by keeping in touch with the latest developments in aviation, and by any other means which may be approved of  by the membership ...” (Winnipeg Tribune, April 1, 1909).

The newly-formed club had an ambitious agenda that included attracting national affiliates, reading papers on aviation, publishing their own aviation journal on aviation and building one or more flying machines.

From those attending, $1 was collected to fund the collection of clippings from British and American aviation clubs. The membership fee was fixed at $3 per person, and by the end of April the number of members had increased to between 65 and 70 and an office was established at 490 Main St.

“The acting secretary was instructed to write to aero clubs of London, Paris, Berlin, New York and St. Louis for copies of constitutions, bylaws and rules.”

Apparently, five inventors were “working on the problem of aerial navigation,” some of whom were working on scale models of aircraft, according to the newspaper reports on the first meeting of the aero club.

Their most ambitious program was a resolution to open a factory dedicated to manufacturing aircraft should one or all of the working models prove successful when built at full scale.

“I sincerely hope, now that the formation of an aero club has been mooted, that the people here will take the matter up and make it a decided success,” said Hugh John Macdonald, a former premier of Manitoba, MP and a police magistrate, at the club’s inaugural meeting. He was noted in local newspapers as being an enthusiastic supporter of aviation, and became the first chairman of the club.

Actually, the founding members of the aero club read like the who’s who of Winnipeg society and included such luminaries as A.J. Norquay, H. Morrison, H.G. Astill, L. Tillter, E.E. Elsey, Jean Leonard, Dr. G.O. Hughes, Dr. C.J. Jamieson, Hugh Lightcap, Archibald Wright, J.H. Sutherland, H.L. Morris, H.H. Currie, among others.

“Practical experimentation is one of the direct aims of the organization and for this purpose an endeavour will be made to interest the Dominion government (Canadian government) to the end that the club and the militia department may co-operate,” reported the Tribune.

“The initial meeting of the Aero Club of Canada had the right ring,” D.A. Keizer, told a Tribune reporter on April 2, 1909. “I do not think there is the slightest doubt this body will be fruitful in results. The immediate consideration is to get a large and interested membership, which I think will be well on the way to realization by the next meeting.”

Keizer was on the advisory committee of the new club.

A speaker present at the meeting said that the air ship of the era was at the stage of development that automobiles had been two decades earlier, and that “aviation is bound to be an achievement of the early future ...”

Of course, aviation had already been given a boost by the Wright Brothers, who were the first to fly a powered heavier-than-air machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. At the time when the Winnipeg club was being formed, the Wright Brothers were giving demonstrations, showing the practicality of flight using their “Flyer.”

While in France in 1908, they thrilled audiences, who came out to the demonstrations by the thousands, to see Wilbur Wright bank, turn and perform figure-eights. The extensive media reporting on the French demonstrations made the two brothers world-wide celebrities.

At Baddeck Bay, a sub-basin of Bras d’Or Lake, on February 23, 1909, the Silver Dart made the first controlled powered flight in Canada. The aircraft was piloted by one of its designers, John McCurdy. The original Silver Dart was designed and built by the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), formed under the guidance of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell.

Winnipeggers were keen on aviation even before the club was formed, and hundreds were on hand to see early aerial daredevils, such as “aeronaut” Louisa Bates, who parachuted safely from a hot-air balloon on July 21, 1893, during the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition. She parachuted to the ground from a height of 3,000 feet and landed near the main track of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The exhibition grounds were just north of the CPR Yards.

“On her return to the fair grounds Miss Bates was congratulated on the success of her aerial trip, and she laughingly related a ludicrous experience,” reported the July 24, Tribune. “As she neared terra firma a cow stood directly underneath quietly chewing its cud, when she yelled to arouse the animal, but the beast never moved till the parachute basket lighted on its back, and she was threatened with a still more unique ride. However, by a sharp movement she shifted the basket and landed safely on the ground.”

She made a second jump, but from a lower altitude, that also proved successful, landing in the southwest corner of the grounds.

Prof. Harry Menier parachuted from a balloon at Winnipeg’s River Park, making four successful jumps from May 27 to 30, 1896. The Tribune reported on May 29 that: “The professor jumped from his trapeze when about 4,000 feet in the air, and after shooting downward with a piece of lead for a couple of hundred feet, his parachute spread out and he came safely to earth.”

But the formation of the aero club marked a new stage in local aerial experimentation, with the expectation that the city would be among the nation’s leading aviation advocates and successfully launch local flight projects.

First up was Edwin E. Kelsey, an inventor originally from England. He had built a working model of what he called “Kelsey’s Helicopter.” The small-scale model was demonstrated at an Aero Club of Canada meeting on April 26. A front-page photo of the airship is found in the April 28, Manitoba Free Press, which described the craft as a “dirigible helicopter.” The caption under the photo stated that “Kelsey’s machine is based on a windmill principle pulling against kites. The sole propulsion is an aero-motor.”

According to the newspaper, Kelsey was also working on an “ornithopter (airplane with flapping wings) with new method of propulsion by means of a ‘rocking motion’ engine, which he claims is an entirely new type.”

It sounds a lot like one of the most disastrous experiments in early aviation captured on film, in which a aircraft uses a engine to flap its wings up and down. On its first test flight, the highly-stressed wings collapsed and the ill-conceived airplane flew apart and came to an inglorious end.

(Next week: part 2)