Pioneer aviator — Albert Contant set out to build a Bleriot-type monoplane in his Norwood garage

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Albert Contant is credited with being the first Manitoban to build from scratch and successfully fly an airplane, although he had some competition  from William “Bill” Straith, another pioneer aviator.

Prior to his epic flight, Contant had journeyed to France, which was then among the nations that were world leaders in aviation, where he earned his pilot’s certificate on March 5, 1914 from the Federation Aeronautical  Internationale. He was the 1,615th individual to be certified as a “Pilote Aviateur.”

According to the April 25, 1914, Manitoba Free Press: “Contant, in addition to taking actual flying practice, has also been following the mechanical erection and construction of aeroplanes, and will work immediately on a monoplane which is to be built entirely in Winnipeg, and the first flight of which he intends to make memorable by making a distance flight between Winnipeg and one of the other principal cities in the west. He will carry a special message on the trip, containing greetings to the mayor of the city selected, and will also perform another act that has never been attempted in Canada, particulars of which will be announced later.”

At the time, Contant ran a garage in the Norwood neigbourhood in what was then the City of St. Boniface, which was incorporated in 1908. Besides their Norwood operation, Contant Brothers Ltd. also became exclusive Ford Motor Co. parts and accessory dealers and ran a shop and store at 48 Princess St., which was opened by Albert Contant in 1915.

The newspaper reported that Contant had brought back from France some materials — parts that were impossible to obtain locally — for the construction of his monoplane.

It was his intent to call his airplane, Winnipeg, according to the newspaper.

“As there are many people curious regarding the construction of these machines Contant will have a quiet spot set apart for his work, where he will be able to proceed with the least possible delay.”

His brother, Alfred Contant, would later tell reporter Sheldon Bowles (published in the September 23, 1967, Free Press), the aviator was helped in the task of building the monoplane by Robert Crawford, a local coach maker.

Alfred said his brother’s work on the monoplane was hindered by the outbreak of the First World War. A suitable engine couldn’t be obtained so he looked farther afield and found a Gnome rotary engine as the airplane’s power plant.

“It had a rotary engine — the whole darn thing went around,” said Alfred.

A rotary engine was usually designed with an odd number of cylinders per row in a radial configuration, in which the crankshaft remained stationary in operation, with the entire crankcase and its attached cylinders rotating around it as a unit. An airplane’s propellor rotated with the cylinders.

The Gnome engine was the work of the three Seguin brothers, Louis, Laurent and Augustin in France.

The aircraft itself was a replica of the type of monoplane that French aviator Louise Bleriot had flown across the English Channel in July 1909. The channel crossing was made in a Bleriot XI powered by a Anzani three-cylinder fan flight engine. Bleriot would later make improvements and add more powerful Gnome seven-cylinder rotary engines to his airplanes. The Bleriot XI remained in production right up to the start of the First World War.

It’s a logical path for him to take, since he had learned to fly in a Bleriot monoplane as shown in the photo that accompanied the April 25, 1914, Free Press article about Contant’s certification as a pilot in France. It was the aircraft type he was most familiar with; thus, it served as the template for his own aviation project.

Meanwhile, Straith was working on a Wright-type airplane, which was more of a conversion of an existing airplane. The main differences being between the two aircraft was that Straith’s was a biplane using a pusher propellor mounted behind the pilot, while Contant’s was a monoplane with the propellor mounted at the front of the plane.

In 1910, Straith had moved from Owen Sound, Ontario, where he had experimented with aviation, to Winnipeg, working for the Otis Fenson Elevator Company, then from 1914 to 1915, he was mechanical superintendent for the Brandon-based Boyd Electrical Company.

According to the Vintage Aircraft Association website, Straith dismantled a biplane and built a modified aircraft from it.

Using photographic evidence, the association claimed the biplane was either a “Williams Model 2, or was built along the lines of the (Wright) Model 2. A different four-wheel Wright-type undercarriage is fitted (possibly from the Model B), as is a different engine, but the airframe is distinctly quite similar to the Model 2, including the radiator type, which was fitted to one Model 2 type.”

The Model 2 was designed and built by Osbert Edwin Williams of Pennsylvania.

This claim is contradicted by a September 25, 1915, article in the Winnipeg Tribune that mentions Straith’s machine was a Wright biplane. The story of Winnipeg’s early aviation years, especially in newspapers published well after 1915, is filled with contradictions about who built the city’s first successful flying heavier-than-air machine — either Staith or Contant. But Straith simple rebuilt an existing aircraft to his own modifications, while Contant essentially built his monoplane from scratch, including its hand-carved laminated wood propellor.

By 1915, Straith was again based in Winnipeg and employed by the Pioneer Motor and Elevator Company.

According to the Tribune article: “For several months, Mr. Straith has been studying at first hand the difficulties of aerial navigation. Owing to engine trouble — the biplane being equipped with an engine that is too weak for long flights — Mr. Straith’s work of late has been curtailed, but he is arranging to have an up-to-date engine of great strength installed in the machine by next spring, when he will continue making daily flights.”

Straith had tried to rise into the air at Brandon, using a modified existing airplane (said to be a Curtiss biplane-type), but it lacked enough power to get into the air.

He then moved to Winnipeg and added pontoons and a more powerful engine to the airplane, but he still couldn’t become airborne. He did churn up waves up and down the Assiniboine River near Osborne Street.

What the Tribune story relates is that Straith was already flying daily by the time the article was published in his Wright biplane.


(Next week: part 2)