Canada’s First Flight of Powered, Heavier-Than-Air Plane
Constructed of silk balloon cloth, pipe, wood, tape and wire, and with a Curtiss 40-hp engine, JAD McCurdy flew the Silver Dart on Feb 23, 1909 at Baddeck Bay, NS
It didn’t look like the sturdy, solid aircraft flying the skies today. Built with an open-air design using pipe, wire, wood and balloon cloth, the Silver Dart, piloted by John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, appeared fragile, rickety, unsafe. It lifted off the frozen surface of Bras d’Or Lake on Cape Breton Island’s Baddeck Bay in Nova Scotia, flying for over a half-kilometer at 3 to 9 meters in elevation. At that moment on February 23, 1909, the Silver Dart soared into Canadian history.
Aerial Experiment Association
Powered and heavier-than-air, the Silver Dart airplane was the first to fly in Canada and the British Empire. The craft was built by the Aerial Experiment Association, a group of aviation visionaries that included pilot JAD McCurdy, Alexander Graham Bell (of telephone fame), engineer Casey Baldwin, engine-maker Glenn H. Curtiss and a US Army Lieutenant, Thomas Selfridge. Their goal was to create “a practical aerodrome,” said CBC.ca. (Unfortunately, Selfridge did not live to see the Silver Dart fly. He was the first aviation death, dying from a skull fracture when a plane piloted by one of the Wright Brothers crashed. Orville Wright was badly injured in the crash, but survived.)
With a Curtiss 50-horsepower, water-cooled V8 piston engine providing the thrust, the Silver Dart was capable of a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. The plane weighed 345 pounds empty and could hold a gross weight of 836 pounds. A wing span of nearly 50 feet and 32 feet in length supported the structure height of ten feet. The pilot sat in the cold open air with a steering wheel of sorts in front of him to guide the plane through flight and landing.
Flying and Crashing the Silver Dart
A month later on March 22, 1909, the Silver Dart again took to the air at Baddeck Bay, this time flying circuits of Bras d’Or Lake. McCurdy flew the plane about six miles’ distance, “at various elevations from six to thirty-five feet,” noted The New York Times article published the next day, “ demonstrating the operator’s perfect control of his machine at all times.”
The Silver Dart and another similar aircraft, the Baddeck No. 1, made a number of successful flights during the summer of 1909. But after the 46th flight, in August, the Silver Dart crashed during a military demonstration in Petawawa, Ontario. “The plane landed awkwardly, fllipped over, and was destroyed beyond repair,” said CBC.ca. Pilot McCurdy flew until 1916 when his eyesight became poor, and went on to become Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia in 1947. Born in 1886, he died in 1961 at age 74 in Montreal, Quebec.
Silver Dart Replica in Baddeck Bay
A replica of the Silver Dart was built in 1959 for the 50th Anniversary of the aircraft, which is now housed at the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. For this year’s centennial anniversary, a volunteer aviation group in Welland, Ontario built another replica. Constructed using the plans for the original Silver Dart, but with small modifications, it was tested by expert pilot Bjarni Tryggvason in Hamilton and will be shipped to Baddeck Bay, Nova Scotia. Canada Post has issued a beautiful, full-colour commemorative stamp to celebrate the auspicious occasion.
If all goes well, the Silver Dart will take to the air on Monday, February 23, 2009 in honour of the original Silver Dart’s first flight, 100 years ago.
Visit CBC Archives for more on the Silver Dart..
See the detailed Flight of the Silver Dart site.