RCAF's pathway to the stars began with the Silver Dart

News Article / February 23, 2017

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By Joanna Calder

On February 23, 1909, the Silver Dart took flight in Nova Scotia. That first powered flight changed travel in Canada forever; air travel became a reality and an industry was born. February 23 has been designated Canada’s National Aviation Day – an opportunity to recognize our aviation pioneers and celebrate Canadians who make safe air travel possible.

The 20th century found a youthful Canada building its nationhood. The Dominion of Canada was still closely aligned with Great Britain and, even though the British Empire was beginning to fade, close links remained between the former colonies and Britain. The advent of two new forms of transportation – the automobile and the airplane – would both have a profound effect on Canada.

I believe that it will be possible in a very few years for a person to take his dinner in New York at 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening and eat his breakfast in Ireland or England the following morning.

–        Alexander Graham Bell, “Flying Machines of the Future”, 1892

“Four years after the Wright brothers achieved the first power-sustained controlled airplane flight, Alexander Graham Bell, J.A.D. [Douglas] McCurdy . . . Frederick Baldwin [both of whom were engineers], Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge [an American army officer] and Glenn Curtiss [an American motorcycle racer], with financial backing from Bell's wife Mabel, founded the Aerial Experiment Association,” Senator Joseph Day told his fellow senators on February 23, 2009 – the 100th anniversary of the Silver Dart’s flight.

The AEA was formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September 1907, under Dr. Bell’s leadership. The team used the Curtiss factory at Hammondsport, New York, as their summer base and Dr. Bell's laboratories in Baddeck as their winter headquarters.

“The AEA began conducting experimental flights with Bell's first idea — a large tetrahedral kite called the Cygnet. Subsequently, Bell devised plans for airplanes, or aerodromes as he called them. The Silver Dart was their fourth flying machine, after some success with the Red Wing, the White Wing and the June Bug,” continued Senator Day.

The first successful powered, heavier-than-air, controlled airplane flight in Canada took place at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on February 23, 1909, when the Silver Dart took to the air, piloted by J.A.D. McCurdy.

The launch of the Silver Dart was “helped by volunteers on skates, many of whom were students given the day off for this momentous occasion,” said Senator Day. It “was pushed onto the ice at Baddeck Bay, a sub-basin of Bras d'Or Lake. After gliding along the ice, the Silver Dart lifted off, rose nine metres and flew for one and a half kilometres at 65 kilometres per hour.

“The flight represented unprecedented success in Canadian aviation as the result of hard work, determination and innovation.”

The day after the Silver Dart’s first flight, Mr. McCurdy flew four miles in a complete circle returning to his starting point. Not only were these flights the first in Canada, they were also recognized by the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom as the first successful heavier-than-air flights by a British subject anywhere in the British Empire.

Mr. McCurdy and Mr. Baldwin formed the Canadian Aerodrome Company to continue their aviation experiments. They sought the interest of the Department of Militia and Defence for possible military applications of the aircraft and were given permission to make some flights during the annual militia training camp.

They shipped the Silver Dart to what is now Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario and, on August 1, 1909, made four demonstration flights. However, the biplane was wrecked in a heavy landing during the final flight. Militia Department officials and officers who witnessed some of these flights were not impressed. It was decided to await the outcome of similar tests and experiments which were being conducted in Britain.

Mr. McCurdy and Mr. Baldwin offered to sell their aircraft to the government and instruct officers to fly them, but they were rejected.

In the next few years, one officer at Militia Headquarters made repeated efforts to have the Department form an aviation section, but these proposals were declined because "no funds were available".

When the First World War began August 4, 1914, Canada had neither pilots nor aircraft in the armed forces. In fact, when the war broke out, Douglas McCurdy spoke to Colonel Sam Hughes, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, about forming a Canadian Air Force. Colonel Hughes, who was not yet a believer in airpower, is reputed to have said, “My boy, the aeroplane is the invention of the devil . . . and will never play any part in such a serious business as the defence of the nation!”

That would change, however, as the employment of aircraft during the war took on greater and greater importance. A failed effort was made to form a Canadian Aviation Corps in the autumn of 1914, but Canadian men flocked to join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service and later – when those two organizations amalgamated – the Royal Air Force.

In the post-war years, those Canadian airmen built the foundation of the organization that on April 1, 1924, became the Royal Canadian Air Force. 

With files from Transport Canada and the Handbook for Air Force Non-Commissioned Members.

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