Celebrating a Century of Canadian Powered Flight
By James Grahame
The first airplane to fly in Canada - the Silver Dart - took off from Baddeck Bay in Nova Scotia on February 23, 1909. Of course, the picturesque Cape Breton village is well known as the home of Beinn Bhreagh, Alexander Graham Bell's historic estate. And it should come as no surprise that Bell had a hand in the project.
The aircraft was designed and built by the Aerial Experiment Association, under the watchful eye of Bell himself. The wings were covered in Japanese silver silk and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss provided the 35 HP V-8 powerplant. It first flew in Hammondsport, New York before being shipped north for the first powered flight ever in the British Commonwealth.
The pilot on that fateful day was John McCurdy, a Baddeck born mechanical engineer who joined the AEA in 1907. A year after his historic flight, he was issued Canada's first pilot's license. Although he and his compatriots had a hard time convincing the government how important the fledgling aviation industry would become, he persisted and rose to the position of Assistant Director General of Aircraft Production throughout World War II.
The Silver Dart is largely unknown - even among Canadians - overshadowed by the Wright brothers' landmark achievement six years earlier. The Silver Dart was the AEA's fourth design, featuring such improvements as tricycle landing gear that allowed it to take off under its own power. It went on to fly 20 miles over a circular course and carried Canada's first passenger in the summer of 1909. Sadly, McCurdy crashed and wrecked the aircraft during an ill-fated military demonstration.
Several replicas have been built over the years. The most recent was flown successfully on February 22, 2009 by former Canadian astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason. He was forced to mark the anniversary a day early because of bad weather. The first takeoff almost ended in disaster as the aircraft stubbornly refused to leave the ground, but after a few quick repairs he completed five flights in the historic reproduction.