A frail, winged craft sat like a mayfly on the ice of Baddeck Bay, in central Cape Breton. A young engineer, Douglas McCurdy, perched confidently among the steel tubing, wires and friction tape. It was a cool Tuesday afternoon, February 23, 1909, and an expectant crowd had assembled to see what the ingenious Alexander Graham Bell and his local protégé were up to this time.
McCurdy had dubbed the machine “Silver” for the coating on its wings and “Dart” just because it seemed obvious. Someone cracked the propeller and McCurdy signaled to the crowd to get out of the way.
The machine advanced rapidly over the ice, with several skaters in hot pursuit. The spectators gawked as the Silver Dart rose gracefully into the air. Only five years after the secretive Wright brothers had first taken flight at Kitty Hawk, it was the first time anyone had seen such a sight, not only in Canada, but anywhere in the British Empire.
McCurdy maneuvered the Silver Dart around, deftly avoided two little girls playing on the ice and made a perfect landing. He hollered over to Bell “She’s all right. Now I’m going to take ‘er up for a real flight.” “No,” Bell told him, “that’s all for today.” He invited the crowd to his place and entertained them with coffee and raspberry vinegar.
Bell was something of a village godfather in Baddeck, which at the end of the 19th century was a remarkable community, full of Scottish enterprise and learning. In 1886 Bell built a large summer home there. He took a paternal interest in young Douglas and wanted to adopt him after the boy’s mother died. McCurdy’s aunt Georgina would not hear of it but the Bells remained deeply involved in the boy’s life. They encouraged him to study engineering at University of Toronto.
Bell was already world famous for his invention of the telephone but his real passion now was flight. With money from his wife, he formed the Aerial Experimental Association, which included himself; McCurdy; F.W. (Casey) Baldwin, a fellow student whom McCurdy had brought back from Toronto; Thomas Selfridge, a lieutenant in the American Army; and Glenn Curtiss, who was famous for the manufacture of motorcycle engines. The aim of the association was simply put: “To put a man in the air.”
The team started with kites, which had obsessed Bell for over 20 years. Their first experimental flight was conducted on December 6, 1907. The test aircraft, the Cygnet I, was a large, tetrahedral kite placed on pontoons. Piloted by Selfridge, it was pulled by a steamboat on Bras d’Or Lake and attained a height of 51 metres. It stayed in the air for seven minutes, but upon landing on the lake the towline failed to release and the kite, along with Selfridge, was submerged. Selfridge was rescued, but the kite was destroyed.
At Hammondsport, New York, they moved on to gliders, which the younger men took turns flying. It was inevitable that the group would think of putting one of Curtiss’s engines into a glider and the result was a cumbersome fledgling called the Red Wing. On March 12, 1908 Casey Baldwin first flew the Red Wing over Lake Keuka.
One of the greatest problems facing these early aircraft was that, once they began to tilt to one side or the other, it was impossible for the pilot to level out. After crashing the Red Wing and studying the photographs, the association took the simple and elegant step of building adjustable flaps into each wing. McCurdy later described the flaps to a French experimenter who exclaimed “It’s a little wing.” This is how the critical innovation of the “aileron” got its name. The association built two more aircraft in New York, setting several records.
It was always Bell’s intention to have each of his four young engineers have a chance to design an aircraft. By the time McCurdy got to the Silver Dart he was able to incorporate the improvements from the previous planes, notably the aileron, the first water-cooled aircraft engine and the silvery “dope” used to waterproof the wings.
After the success of the Silver Dart at Baddeck, McCurdy flew the Silver Dart for Army observers at Petawawa, Ontario. On its fifth flight the craft caught a wheel in the sand and crashed, allowing the Army brass to declare that aircraft would never play a part in modern warfare. It was not the last time that Canadian ingenuity was ignored in Canada.
McCurdy went on to give flying demonstrations to huge crowds across the United States. Americans were so taken with his courage that they declared that, though he was Canadian “by birth,” he was in aviation a true “American.” In truth he was a reflection of the values of hard work, education and independence that were the hallmark of his Scottish heritage in Cape Breton. He was a pioneer in one of history’s great technological innovations.
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