First aeroplane flight in Western Canada — it wasn’t spectacular but Ely got off the ground

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

On February 23, 1909, aviator and airplane designer John Alexander Douglas McCurdy made the first controlled heavier-than-air flight in Canada and the British Empire when he took the Silver-Dart aloft near Braddeck, Nova Scotia. McCurdy’s flying machine, with a 12.19-metre (40-foot) wingspan and weighing half a ton, was powered by motorcycle engines generating a mere 30 horsepower. 

Reporter Charles Fox, who witnessed the historic flight, wrote  the Silver-Dart was wheeled from a shed to the outer bay of Bras d’Or Lake at three o’clock in the afternoon. The curious crowd of about 200 spectators congregated in front of and along the line of advance of the Silver-Dart, “so it became necessary to appoint police to keep the ice clear ... The wind shifted and it was decided to take the machine further up the bay. As most of the laboratory staff were on skates, this was done very quickly. Before some of the people realized what was taking place, the buzz of the engine could be heard and the machine was seen advancing rapidly. She had gone about 90 feet (27.43 metres) along the ice when she took to the air to an elevation of about 20 to 30 feet (6.09 to 9.14 metres) at about 40 miles an hour (64.37 km/h) before she glided down (after a flight of nearly a kilometre) ... Everyone seemed dumfounded.” A day later, McCurdy flew the Silver-Dart a distance of 7.245 kilometres (4 1/2 miles) and circled Braddeck Bay of Bras d’Or Lake.

When McCurdy flew the Silver-Dart, he was a 23-year-old member of the Aerial Experiment Association, founded by Alexander Graham Bell, the world-

famous inventor of the telephone who then resided in his home named Beinn Bhreagh on the north shore of the lake.

Aviation was a relatively new pursuit, arising just six years earlier when the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

As more pioneer aviators took to the air, fascination with heavier-than-air flight generated greater enthusiasm across the globe. At the various North American  fairs and exhibitions, thousands of admirers were invariably on hand to witness the exploits of the daring young men in their flying machines. Whenever a new aviation record was established, such as Louis Bleriot’s flight across the England Channel, bold front-page headlines proclaimed the accomplishments.

“The novelty of seeing the man-bird fly is still so strong that it draws thousands whenever the chance is given,” according to a Manitoba Free Press report in 1910. In Hong Kong, 72,000 people paid to see just one aircraft on display.

There were relatively few aeroplanes manufactured, which meant that heavier-than-air flight was still a phenomenon shrouded in mystery. Those who dared go aloft the flimsy flying machines — wood, silk and canvas held together by glue, stitches and wires — earned the status of matinée idols among an adoring public; they were the rock stars of their era.

Manitobans were also caught up in the world-wide thrill of flight. The enthusiasm was manifested after accounts were read of McCurdy’s history-making flight, resulting in the formation of the Winnipeg Aero Club on March 31, 1909. The new club immediately began to plan the construction of its own aeroplane. The Manitoba Free Press on July 9, 1909, reported the club arranged with Happyland management to perform trials of its  aeroplane, which was given the name Canada, at the amusement park’s baseball field. The announcement was slightly premature, since the aeroplane was still under construction. 

The only report of an “aerocar” on display that year in Happyland detailed one built by William J. Robinson, but no attempt was made to fly the machine. Whether it was even capable of flight was not reported.

It wasn’t until a year later as a special feature of the 20th-anniversary of the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, when the guest of honour on opening day was Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid 

Laurier, that heavier-than-air flight was accomplished in Winnipeg by a “bird-man.” 

The management of the exhibition contracted American aviator Whipple Hall to pilot his flying machine above the heads of spectators at the exhibition grounds off Dufferin Street in the North End. Before he could honour his contract, Hall became ill, was taken to hospital and his last-minute replacement was Eugene Ely.

American Ely had bought a four-cylinder Curtiss biplane and learned to fly near Portland, Oregon. 

Published accounts of Ely’s early flying career are somewhat confused. For example, it is reported on many Internet sites (including numerous aviation sites and Wikipedia) that Ely first appeared at the Winnipeg exhibition in June 1910 and then journeyed to 

Minneapolis to take part in the Twin City Aviation Meet at the State Fair Grounds. 

According to the book, Blue Ribbon: A Social and Pictorial History of the Minnesota State Fair by Karal Ann Marling (1990), the first flight in Minnesota history occurred on June 20, 1910, with American aviator Glen Curtiss at the controls of an aircraft he had designed and manufactured.

At the Minnesota State Fair, Ely attracted the attention of Curtiss and became a member of his 13-man barnstorming team which travelled to North American fairs and exhibitions to demonstrate the prowess of Curtiss aircraft. The state fair ran from June 22 to 25, 1910, while the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition started nearly a month later, so Ely could not have flown in Winnipeg before coming to Minnesota.

What seems clear is Ely’s first public appearance occurred in Minnesota as an independent flyer, while the Winnipeg appearance was his first official stint as a Curtiss-employed aviator.

Like McCurdy, Curtiss had been a member of Bell’s Aerial Experiment 

Association. Bell invited Curtiss to help the AEA build “a practical airplane.” He became especially noted as a builder of light-weight aircraft engines. 

Curtis flew the AEA’s June Bug on July 4, 1908, in front of a Hammondsport, New York, crowd and New York City reporters. This accomplishment has been called the first-ever “public demonstration” of heavier-than-air flight in North America.

Since the Wright Brothers for years refused to show their aircraft to the American public — they were fearful others would steal their ideas and sought the sole patent for powered flight (an impossible dream as it turned out) — Curtiss was able to become North America’s first aircraft manufacturer, spurring on the Wrights to finally stage public demonstrations and begin manufacturing their airplane designs. 

In 1910, the first attempt by Ely to fly occurred on July 14, a day after  the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition began — it ran for 10 days, ending on July 23. 

The July 15, 1910, Manitoba Free Press described Ely as “an unassuming mortal, deliberate of voice ... His eyes have an odd, far-away look, something of what one writer has called ‘that brooding, sheathed glance, characteristic of eagles and aeronauts.’”

In an interview with the Free Press, Ely said he had been as high as “twenty-two hundred feet ... in that thing, but I like better to travel between five hundred and a thousand ... sometimes, when you’re among the clouds, it feels a bit high.”

Ely explained that aviators liked calm conditions for flying, but it was far from calm on July 14. Also, his first flight would not be at the exhibition grounds, since Ely had calculated there was insufficient space to get his biplane aloft. As a result, the aviator convinced the exhibition executive that the prairie adjacent to nearby McPhillips Street was more suitable. If he got off the ground, Ely promised the directors he would make a pass over the exhibition grounds.

“A level reach of sward was chosen for the starting point. This aeroplane rises five feet in every hundred, and hence needs room for a good preparatory race over terra firma. The mechanism was brought to a standstill, and the machinist and crow immediately set about testing and adjusting wire-cord, bearings and gear. There is little superfluous machinery. A thin wire runs from the starting lever back to the motor, which is behind the aviator’s seat. A wheel tilts the rudder planes at any angle, and there is a brake, handy to the foot of the operator, to bring the machine to standstill at descent. Above and beneath the motor, the smooth convexity of the oiled silk planes (wings) stretches, rigid and light over a slim woodframe. Bamboo is used wherever practicable ... Three rubber tired wheels sustain till it leaves the earth.”

After the aircraft was brought to the field, Ely, “a slim, deliberate figure in gray coat and white duck trousers” walked along the improvised runway, gazed at the rapidly moving clouds as well as flags flapping noisily in the strong wind.

“‘Perhaps at sundown,’ he said to that expectant, and somewhat skeptical crowd; ‘At sundown, when the breeze fails.’”

As the sun slipped below the horizon, the aviator rose from his seat and his straw hat was whisked away by the wind with a small boy in hot pursuit of it.

“I am afraid — afraid,” he said at this point, “that there will be nothing to see tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.”

With that statement, the attempt at powered flight was postponed until the next day.

On Friday, July 16, a Free Press headline read First Aeroplane Flight in Western Canada. The accompanying article announced that at dusk the previous day, Ely’s flying machine finally took to the air to the great relief of the exhibition management. The successful flight took three attempts with the first two resembling “a bird with a broken wing.”

“The wind, which had been blowing at twenty miles an hour, finally calmed as darkness descended and the aviator described a circle of two miles (3.22 kilometres) at a height of forty feet (12.19 metres). He soared like a great bird and came within one hundred feet (30.48 metres) of the starting point when the engine suddenly stopped. Then came one of those glides that people read so much about, and Ely swooped down to the ground so sharply that the left plane (wing) struck the uneven surface and broke two ribs of the airship and some stays.”

(Next week; part 2)