The Curtiss Canada has a place in Canadian aviation history because it was the first twin-engine airplane to be designed and flown in Canada.
In fact, the Curtiss Canada also earned other Canadian aviation “firsts:” It was the first Canadian airplane developed for military use, and it was the first bomber to be designed and built in Canada. And, it was also Curtiss’ first twin-engine airplane design.
But hardly anyone remembers the Curtiss Canada because it never achieved the goals set for it by its designers. One prototype and 11 production airplanes were built at the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motors Co. factory in Toronto during the First World War, but none survived the assessment stage to become a combat airplane.
Shell Canada kept the Curtiss Canada memory alive in a full-page advertisement in the April, 1967, issue of Canadian Aviation. The page featured an illustration of the airplane in flight over the headline: “The mysterious fate of Canada’s first bomber.” The text in the advertisement describes the Curtiss Canada as a “capable and much needed weapon – that disappeared.” The text then states that airplanes were built in Canada and delivered to the War Office in England and asks the question: “What happened to the 11 Canadian bombers? No one knows. The War Office acknowledged receipt of the planes – but their official war record remains a secret.”
It should be noted that Shell Canada’s advertisement in Canadian Aviation was a joint venture with what was then called the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa to promote the sale of a 20×17-inch poster of the Curtiss Canada in flight for 35 cents, with proceeds going to the museum trust. (An ancillary purpose of the advertisement was to make the point that Shell aviation fuels “exceed normal accepted standards” in terms of quality.)
So, what is the Curtiss Canada story?
In the year or so prior to the outbreak of the First World War in August, 1914, the Curtiss Aeroplane Co. developed a twin-engine flying-boat – the Curtiss H1 America. The company planned to use the airplane in an attempt to make the first trans-Atlantic Ocean crossing. The war interrupted this plan. Instead, Curtiss made a pitch to the British for a military airplane based on the H1 design.
The Curtiss H series was a family of long-range flying boats, the first two of which were developed in an attempt to make the first trans-Atlantic crossing in response to the 10,000£ prize challenge issued in 1913 by London’s newspaper, the Daily Mail. There are reports that the Royal Navy may have had at least two of the early H series flying boats in service early in the war. On the basis of this, the British government was persuaded by Curtiss to order prototype and production versions.
Although Glenn Curtiss himself contributed to the design of this new airplane, the Curtiss factory at Hammondsport, New York, was so fully committed to filling orders for other war-related projects that responsibility for the British project was given to its recently established subsidiary in Toronto. The latter had been established in the spring of 1915 in the expectation that there would be orders from the United Kingdom and that London would be biased in favor of a supplier within the British Empire.
The Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Co. in Toronto began its work on the new airplane in May, 1915. Construction of the new flying machine, in a landplane variant, began in June, 1915. The first test flight occurred on September 7. It was initially called the Curtiss Columbia when its development was still the responsibility of Curtiss’ American operations; upon its transfer to Toronto, it was re-named the Curtiss Canada.
The initial 1915 Curtiss Columbia was a large biplane design based on the Curtiss H series of flying boats. It was a design that Glenn Curtiss submitted for patent in July, 1915. The nacelle of the Columbia carried a forward cockpit for two gunners; the pilot cockpit was behind both the wings and the two engines. The pilot, who was positioned slightly above the lower wing, had limited visibility in every direction. Two engines with counter-rotating three-bladed propellers were mounted on either side of the nacelle just below the upper wing and between the pilot and the forward gunners. Ailerons were fitted into the upper wings only, which were longer than the lower wings. The land version had a conventional landing gear with twin, tandem main wheels and a tailskid. An early form of autopilot, the Sperry stabilizer, was fitted to improve stability for bombing. The design plan called for two Curtiss VX engines of 160-170 hp.
Because the Curtiss VX engines were not available for the September test flight in Toronto, two 90 hp Curtiss OX5s were fitted instead. Despite the lack of power, the prototype recorded a speed of 70 mph and generally performed well. The September Toronto test flights were so successful that a British War Office observer enthusiastically endorsed the Curtiss Canada, a recommendation that resulted in an initial order for 11 airplanes, followed by another order for 25 more airplanes.
Following the Toronto flight tests, the prototype was delivered by ship to Britain in late 1915, and was reassembled at Farnborough for the Royal Flying Corps. Flight testing resumed in January, 1916, and the Curtiss Canada earned cautious endorsement.
Meanwhile, the Toronto plant finished the order of 11 Curtiss Canada airplanes, which were shipped to England in the spring of 1916; this shipment, designated Canada Model C, included improvements to the prototype that was tested at Farnborough. From this time forward, the trials did not go well: It was discovered that the Curtiss Canada was unsuitable as a bomber, but might instead be a platform for a one- or two-pound gun if rear protection could be added. The fuel system was found to be vulnerable to battle damage. One of the three-bladed propellers shattered during a test flight. Upgrade engines were not delivered on time. And there were other concerns about workmanship and design. By July, 1916, the order for the additional 25 airplanes from the Toronto factory was abruptly cancelled.
By this time, the Curtiss Canada was being outperformed by more capable aircraft such as the Handley Page O/100.
In their 1982 book, Canadian Aircraft Since 1909, K.M. Molson and H.A. Taylor state that “the unsatisfactory performance of the Canada can be attributed to three things.
First, its design had been laid down before air warfare had developed and was initially accepted before any [air combat had been experienced] by the British air forces.
Second, its unsatisfactory engines would have condemned it regardless of other factors.
Thirdly, poor detail design and workmanship simply compounded the other problems…. [It] nevertheless occupies a secure place in Canadian aviation history as the first twin-engined aircraft every built or flown in Canada.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2017 edition of Altitude magazine.