From its early beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, the development of aviation in Manitoba has had a significant impact on Winnipeg, its surrounding communities as well as Manitoba’s north. In 1909, Manitoba ushered in the age of flight with the creation of the first aviation association primarily devoted to the development of aeronautics in Canada – the Aero Club of Canada. The Aero Club of Canada was formed by 25 enthusiasts “to assist and promote practical aeronautics by encouraging Canadian inventors.”
The club’s initial ambitious project resulted in the first aircraft designed and built entirely in Canada, the “Aero Car Canada.” Although resembling other earlier Wright and Curtiss designs, the sole prototype was 30ft long, 6ft wide, featured “V-shaped planes,” weighed a scant 700 lbs and used a 15 hp engine propelling a large 7ft single “pusher” propeller.
Despite the innovative design, the Aero Car Canada was not flown. Its first flight was delayed partly by weather and partly by a lack of parts that were being sent from the United States. Although the public, as well as experts examined the aircraft, the test flight was indefinitely delayed. It was not until the arrival, exactly a year later of Eugene Burton Ely, demonstration pilot for Curtiss Aircraft, that the first powered flight in Manitoba was recorded. Ely flew a Curtiss Flyer, not the Aero Car.
A second aircraft design was initiated under the auspices of the Aero Club of Canada. The “Kelsey Helicopter,” named after its Winnipeg inventor, Edwin E. Kelsey, was revealed to the public on April 6, 1909 and was described as a “dirigible helicopter.” Although the design proved to be successful in scale model form, lifting into the air and even flying in a confined space, it never progressed to final construction. A further five aeronautical projects commenced by members of the Aero Club of Canada were similarly fated to never be completed.
From contemporary reports, a picture emerges of the scene on July 15, 1910, when Eugene Ely, the Curtiss test pilot made the first heavier-than-air flight in Manitoba. Spectators came on foot and in a procession of wagons, carriages and buggies, on bicycles, on horseback and in a few sputtering automobiles. Matrons in giant plumed hats, businessmen with slicked-back pompadours, small boys in knickerbockers and little girls in bloomers and patent slippers, all squirmed and leaned over the rope barrier to see a small, fragile craft trundle out onto an improvised grass airstrip near the polo grounds of Winnipeg. The Curtiss Flyer biplane gathered speed and ascended in a fluttering circle above their heads. Mouths dropped open and remained fixed in place as their world transformed before them.
Those who watched his third takeoff also witnessed Ely’s spectacular crash-landing that ended his exhibition and also went down in history as Canada’s first major air crash. Ely was to go on to fame as the first pilot to take off from the first aircraft carrier – a collier fitted with a modified deck – on November 10, 1910. Subsequently on January 18, 1911, he would be the first to land on a converted cruiser, completing the trials to prove an aircraft carrier was feasible as a new weapon of war. By the end of the year he was dead. He crashed during a barnstorming tour at Macon, Georgia on October 19, 1911, and just as others had done before, he had died with his hands still on the control wheel.
Edited from Altitude, a quarterly publication of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, Spring 2010. Further information is found in Fuller G.A., Griffin, J.A. and Molson, K.M. 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology 1840-1965. Willowdale, Ontario: Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 1983.