Canada’s first pilot commemorated in Nova Scotia

News Article / October 20, 2016

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Gerald Haddon served as an honorary colonel of the Canadian Forces School of the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering (CFSATE) in Borden, Ontario, from October 29, 2010 - April 25, 2014. The school is part of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s training system.

But Honorary Colonel Haddon’s roots in the history of flight in Canada go much deeper than that. He is the grandson of J.A.D. McCurdy, who flew the Silver Dart on February 23, 1909, from the frozen surface of the Bras d’Or Lake near Baddeck in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It was the British Empire’s first powered, heavier-than-air flight and the first step in Canada’s great history of military and civil aviation.

Honorary Colonel Haddon travelled to Nova Scotia in the summer of 2016 to participate in the staging of a play about Alexander Graham Bell, who was the leader in the development of the Silver Dart, and to help unveil a bust of his grandfather at Government House in Halifax. Here’s his account.

By Honorary Colonel Gerald Haddon

Amanda, my wife, and I set off from Oakville, Ontario, to drive to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where the Bras d’Or waters beckoned us with a sparkling welcome.

Lorna MacDonald, Professor of Voice Studies at the University of Toronto, is the creator and librettist of The Bells of Baddeck, a music-drama that tells the story of Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell and how the small hamlet of Baddeck captured their hearts. Lorna invited me to come to Nova Scotia where the month-long production was taking place from July 2 to August 2, 2016, at The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site to participate in several of the pre-performance “Bell Chats” and to give some speeches.

This truly remarkable and inspiring production captures the spirit of one of Canada’s most beloved inventors and I was honoured to have been afforded the opportunity to expand on the life of my grandfather, who was one of “Bell’s boys”.

Childhood and career

Born on August 2, 1886, and brought up in Baddeck, young Douglas McCurdy could be found at Beinn Bhreagh [Alexander Graham Bell’s home near Baddeck] helping Bell with his glider and kite experiments. When not assisting Bell, McCurdy would often be playing with Elsie and Daisy Bell. My grandfather remained lifelong friends with Bell’s daughters and was a frequent visitor to Beinn Bhreagh even into his seventies.

During his childhood, McCurdy met many famous scientists and inventors, drawn to this small hamlet of 100 people because of Dr. Bell’s worldwide reputation. Having lost two sons in infancy, Bell wanted to adopt my grandfather when he was five years old, so strong was the bond that had developed between the two of them. Had it not been for his strong-minded and motherly maiden aunt, Georgina McCurdy, he would undoubtedly have become the Bell's legal son.

“J.A.D. McCurdy was born a McCurdy, and by God, he will die a McCurdy,” she stated firmly. However, Bell did become a godfather to my grandfather and, in 1893, Dr. and Mrs. Bell took my grandfather, age seven, to Washington, D.C., where he spent a very happy year as part of their family. Later on, recognizing my grandfather to be a brilliant student, Dr. Bell helped sponsor his education to St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario and encouraged my grandfather to attend the University of Toronto’s School of Mechanical Engineering, where he was the youngest student to be admitted to the university.

My grandparents had a beautiful summer house in Baddeck where I spent many blissful holidays as a young boy. And it was here that “Gampy”, as I called him, taught me how to sail. Navigating around the Bras d’Or Lake as a young boy with his two brothers, he became aware of the power of the wind and what it could do. And from those early days, a life-long curiosity was born, a curiosity which would lead him to become an extraordinary engineer and gifted pilot with a list of glittering aviation firsts.

My grandfather was Canada’s first pilot; he made the first flight in the British Empire on February 23, 1909, in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, as a member of the Aerial Experiment Association, in a fragile aeroplane he designed and built called the Silver Dart.

It was an unforgettable moment to give a talk in the Bell Museum under a replica Silver Dart built by a group of volunteers, of which I was one. The Aerial Experiment Association was born on October 1, 1907, in Baddeck. Members of the group called themselves “Associates” and were five in number: Alexander Graham Bell, J.A.D. McCurdy, Casey Baldwin, Thomas Selfridge, and Glenn Curtis.

The Aerial Experiment Association was formed with one purpose in mind:  “To get a man into the air”.  

“We breathed an atmosphere of aviation from morning till night and almost from night to morning,” said Dr. Bell. “I may say for myself that this Association with these young men proved to be one of the happiest times of my life.”

Not only did we participate in The Bells of Baddeck, but my wife and I also travelled on to Halifax where we were graciously invited by His Honour Brigadier-General the Honourable John James Grant, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, to stay in Government House for the unveiling of a magnificent portrait bust of my grandfather, commissioned by the Province of Nova Scotia.

Appointed lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia

My grandfather had also served as the 20th lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia from 1947 to 1952. Some sixty years ago, I had – over the course of my grandfather’s tenure – stayed at Government House numerous times. It is the oldest official residence in Canada and has been the working residence of the Sovereign's representative in Nova Scotia for more than 200 years.

This beautiful Georgian home and national historic site contains an impressive collection of art and antiques that reflect the province's history and heritage. Lieutenant Governor Grant and his wife Joan insisted that Amanda and I explore the history and beauty of Government House, adding that we were free to wander throughout the residence.

It was wonderful to revisit so many of the magnificent rooms that I had last explored as a young school boy. And Government House was a treasure trove of fascinating rooms to a curious ten-year-old. I remember that when I was called downstairs for meals, I would zoom down the long staircase bannister with wild abandon – much to the disapproval of my concerned grandmother but to the great amusement of my grandfather.

I also recall many discussions with my grandfather and the lessons that he passed on to me as I sat quietly at his feet. He also taught me some of the endearing and durable qualities that make Nova Scotians such special people.

He never forgot his roots in Baddeck. When Prime Minister MacKenzie King appointed him lieutenant-governor, the press besieged my grandfather for a comment. He said he was privileged and honoured and would perform his duties “as well as a country boy from Cape Breton could”.

In spite of the many honours that came his way during his lifetime, he always remained a modest man, who invariably directed the conversation towards others.As the King’s Representative, McCurdy relished his new position because it provided him the opportunity to serve his beloved province from where so much of his worldwide fame came. In his vice-regal position, he met people from every station in life and invariably treated each individual exactly the same. Whatever he accomplished in his post as lieutenant governor, it was McCurdy’s talent for maintaining the common touch - in spite of the required dignity of his official position – that endeared him to the thousands who came to know him. And, to a young boy such as myself, he was a magnificent figure in his official uniform.

He truly was my hero. 

In 1959, the Queen appointed my grandfather an honorary air commodore in recognition of the 50th anniversary of his historic flight. The only other person, at that time, sharing the same distinction was Sir Winston Churchill.        

That same year, in celebration of his flight, the Royal Canadian Air Force appointed him as the very first civilian honorary colonel of the RCAF. As fortunate as I am to have been mentored by and been born the grandson of J.A.D. McCurdy, it is a singular honour for me to carry on this tradition in my role as an honorary colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The unveiling

Christian Corbet, a Canadian artist of international stature who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, was entrusted with the responsibility of sculpting my grandfather’s work. At the unveiling of the Portrait Bust, I was breathless at first, vainly searching for words to describe what my eyes were attempting to absorb; the Portrait is so lifelike that I felt my grandfather would speak at any moment.

Made of a bronzed resin, the sculpture is a light blue bronze in colour. As Christian explains, “J. A. D. McCurdy spent a lot of time looking to the sky and to the water for his inspiration, so I decided to incorporate the blue hue into the bust.

“I sculpted the one-of-a-kind, double life size bust with tools that once belonged to Walter Allward, sculptor of the Vimy Memorial [in France],” he adds, “and I also sculpted McCurdy’s signature on the back.”

Canadians are indeed most fortunate to have Christian Corbet create and donate this historic piece and I would like to recognize his dedication and skill as an artist in sculpting this magnificent portrait of a man I knew and loved. Amanda and I are also extremely grateful to Their Honours for graciously hosting this remarkable and unique event and for commissioning the sculpture.

The bust of my grandfather has been placed in the state dining room at Government House. When one enters this resplendent room, one’s eye is immediately drawn to sculpted portrait. Opposite my grandfather, a portrait painting of Queen Elizabeth II hangs above the splendid marble fireplace mantle, as well as a bust of His Excellency Major-General the Right Honorable Georges Vanier, the 19th Governor General of Canada.

Last thoughts

As I left Government House, I could not help recalling Gilbert Grosvenor, the chairman of the National Geography Society, who wrote in 1959 that he had known Lindbergh, Amundsen, Byrd, Peary, Shackleton and said, “I regard J.A.D. McCurdy as a man who ranks with the very greatest of these”.

As Governor General Vanier said, “In our march forward in material happiness, let us not neglect the spiritual threads in the weaving of our lives. If Canada is to attain the greatness worthy of it, each of us must say, ‘I ask only to serve’.”

My grandfather changed forever the world of his time by believing in a dream: a dream of flight and of putting a man into the air. He served his province and his nation with excellence and with pride.

I am honoured beyond words to be his grandson and I am delighted that we paid homage in Government House to the man whom many consider to be the “Father of Canadian Aviation”.

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