Article: The AEA’s Silver Dart and Early Aviation

  • Silver-Dart-McCurdy-1909-640x250

    1909 was a breakthrough year in the history of powered flight and the aerial experiments at Baddeck played a vital role.

    by Vladimir Simosko

    The 100th anniversary of the first manned powered flight in Canada by John McCurdy who took the Silver Dart aloft on February 23, 1909, was celebrated by a replica re-creating the flight at Baddeck on Bras d’Or Lake, Nova Scotia (a day earlier than the actual anniversary, due to the weather), and a postage stamp that unfortunately appears to illustrate the Silver Dart minus its tail. The 50th and 75th anniversaries also generated replicas, and a Google search provides an abundance of illustrations and articles, enhancing an appreciation of the event, its original cast of characters, and its significance in early aviation history as well as Canadian history. As with all achievements, this event is best appreciated in context.

    Early aviation history provides many fascinating accounts of attempts to design and fly a powered heavier-than-air machine, including a few 19th century experiments that reportedly got off the ground for short uncontrolled hops. But the problems of creating a flyable design powered by an engine of sufficient power prevented success until 1903 when New Zealand farmer Richard Pearse, experimenting with a bamboo monoplane and home-made engine, apparently made several uncontrolled flights. His first flight reportedly occurred March 31, 1903; then on May 2, according to witnesses, he reached an altitude of 10-15 feet for about 50 yards of sustained flight before crashing into a hedge. Family members and other locals regarded Pearse as a crackpot and he apparently influenced nobody. (The Associated Press from Wellington reported celebrations on the 100th anniversary of his initial flight, complete with a replica of his aircraft, in 2003.)

    The Wright Brothers’ famous achievements at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903, consisted of four flights that morning with the brothers alternating as pilots of their Flyer (as they called it). Orville’s initial flight was only a few feet from the ground over about 40 yards, but their subsequent flights were longer and obviously under control, though limited. The fourth effort, with Wilbur in control, flew for almost one minute for 859 feet. But although there were witnesses and the famous photo was evidence of their feat, few believed it. Wilbur’s last flight damaged the aircraft, which was then destroyed by the wind. This curtailed further efforts until Spring 1904 when the Wrights built a similar aircraft featuring some design improvements. They advertised their efforts in the press and reporters turned up at the field near Dayton, Ohio, to witness their tests. The demonstration was unsuccessful because their aircraft’s motor lacked sufficient power to overcome the minimal headwinds. The best they could do in 1904 was to use a home-made catapult for launching to achieve sufficient airspeed for flight. Their 51st effort that summer achieved a sustained flight of 61 seconds, finally beating their 1903 record. Things continued to improve and by the end of 1904 they managed several sustained flights of up to five minutes and managed to circle their field four or five times. Although their trials were in clear view of a nearby trolley line, few believed they were actually flying until their third Flyer was rolled out in 1905. This aircraft was redesigned and fitted with a much more powerful engine. After achieving several successes during September, Flyer III marked a major milestone on October 5 when it flew 24½ miles in a sustained flight of more than 38 minutes.

    Although many had witnessed the Wrights’ Dayton flights from September to October 1905, few believed it aside from assorted aero-enthusiasts. The Wrights were unable to interest the U.S. government, but France sent a delegation to contact the Wrights during 1906, a period when the Wrights were doing no flying but working on an improved engine. On October 23, 1906, the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont achieved the first powered heavier-than-air flight in Europe in his remarkable-looking 14-bis, remaining in the air over a distance of 197 feet. On November 12, he flew 722 feet in just over 21 seconds. The Wrights flew farther, but took longer. In 1903 Santos-Dumont, who had earlier pioneered powered dirigibles with considerable success as early as 1901, continued to be a major figure in early aviation and his achievements generated considerable interest and further experimentation in Europe.

    In 1907, many were trying to fly, and a few succeeded, notably the Voisin brothers. On November 9, 1907, one of their early aircraft modified by Henri Farman remained in the air for over one minute, managing a distance of 3,379 feet in 74 seconds; it was only the second aircraft (aside from the Wrights’ 1905 Flyer III) to remain in the air for more than a minute since the Wrights’ Flyer II in 1904. Meanwhile, the Wrights were negotiating for contracts in the United States and Europe but had not flown since October 1905. They resumed their trials on May 6, 1908, with a demonstration of their newest aircraft, the Wright Flyer Model A, at Kitty Hawk in a series of flights that included taking a passenger along for the ride. But when Wilbur crashed on May 14, further tests and demonstrations were suspended.

    Meanwhile, the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) was formally organized on October 1, 1907, as a time-limited effort to develop powered flight. Alexander Graham Bell had befriended Canadians John McCurdy (a relative of his wife) and Casey Baldwin, both engineering students at the University of Toronto. Their interest in powered flight inspired Bell’s wife to suggest and fund a formal association for the purpose. They invited the American Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, N.Y., who was experimenting with motorcycle engines and setting speed records on the ground. At the U.S. government’s request, Lt. Thomas Selfridge joined the association as an observer from the U.S. Army. All contributed ideas and helped design four aircraft, which they called Aerodromes. All four Aerodromes used Curtiss-designed engines.

    The AEA’s Aerodrome No. 1, Red Wing, was primarily credited to Selfridge, but its only two flights were made by Baldwin in March 1908 off the ice on Lake Keuka near Hammondsport. On March 12, Baldwin became the first Canadian to fly, covering 318 feet, but then crashed early into his second flight on March 18.

    Aerodrome No. 2, White Wing, was a reconstruction of Red Wing with tricycle landing gear and improved control and credited to Baldwin. White Wing was flown by Baldwin on May 18; Selfridge twice on May 19; by Curtiss on May 22 for White Wing’s longest flight (339 yards); and finally by McCurdy on May 23, 1908, who was slightly injured when that flight crashed.

    Curtiss was credited with the design of Aerodrome No. 3, June Bug, which was a further refinement of White Wing. It was flown on a few occasions by Selfridge but mostly by Curtiss and McCurdy between June 21 and August 31, 1908. On its seventh flight on July 4, Curtiss officially flew over a mile to win the Scientific American Trophy. On August 29, McCurdy flew June Bug more than two miles. In November 1908, June Bug was fitted with pontoons and re-named Loon, but was unsuccessful as a float plane.

    On September 17, 1908, Selfridge was killed while a passenger with Orville Wright in a Wright Model A during an acceptance flight for the U.S. Army.

    This was the first fatal accident in the history of powered flight. At the time, Wilbur was in Europe demonstrating another Model A near Le Mans, France, to great effect. During that European tour he set a duration record of two hours, 20 minutes, 23 seconds on December 31, 1908.

    By then the Aerial Experiment Association’s Aerodrome No. 4, Silver Dart, credited to McCurdy who reportedly was the only one to fly it, was being flown in Hammondsport, N.Y. Silver Dart’s initial flight on December 6, 1908, covered 600 feet, and McCurdy achieved 10 more flights before Christmas. In January 1909, the plane was moved to Baddeck, Nova Scotia, for further flights in Canada. Silver Dart’s first flight in Canada on February 23 lasted for more than a half-mile over Bras d’Or Lake. On March 10, 1909, McCurdy flew Silver Dart on a circular course for 20 miles. Having achieved its purpose of creating a heavier-than-air machine capable of controlled flight, the AEA disbanded on March 31, 1909.

    The Wrights still retained their lead, but 1909 was the year aviation began to flourish, with achievement after achievement by various designers and pilots accumulating rapidly. Baldwin and McCurdy continued as partners, building the aircraft Baddeck I and Baddeck II, which flew with great success. Baldwin soon dropped out of active flying to concentrate on design. McCurdy went on to fly in aviation meets, setting records and attempting to fly from Florida to Cuba in 1911. He continued to fly and set records, mostly using aircraft designed by Curtiss. During the early years of the First World War, McCurdy and Curtiss trained Canadian flyers at the Curtiss Flying School, but McCurdy ceased flying in 1916 due to failing eyesight. Curtiss, of course, designed and manufactured many important motors and aircraft, including the Golden Flyer which won him his second Scientific American Trophy in 1909 and the International Gordon Bennett Race in France in August 1909. Other famous Curtiss aircraft include the ubiquitous Jenny used as a trainer during WWI, as an observation aircraft during the Mexican campaign of 1916, and becoming especially prominent when flown by countless barnstormers during the 1920-30s. Curtiss designed a special plane for pioneer aviatrix Katherine Stinson, who used it for the first airmail flight between Calgary and Edmonton in 1918, as well as many other exhibition flights. He also designed several unique floatplanes which repeatedly won the Schneider Trophy. Also prominent were assorted Curtiss biplane fighters used by the U.S. Army and Navy between the World Wars, and the famous P-40 fighter of the Second World War.


    In addition to material on the web and many general books on early aviation, the following excellent accounts were especially useful.

    • Kelly, Fred. The Wright Brothers: A biography authorized by Orville Wright (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983).
    • Bowers, Peter. Curtiss Aircraft 1907-1947 (Putnam: London, 1979).
    • Ellis, Frank. Canada’s Flying Heritage (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980).
    Vladimir Simosko is a former University of Manitoba librarian one of whose interests is the early history of flying.
    This article originally appeared in the Spring, 2010 edition of Altitude magazine; a quarterly publication of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required