Take Flight with the Silver Dart at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum

by | Jun 8, 2017 | Canada, Ottawa | 6 comments

Welcome to the First Guest Post on Boomervoice!

I am very excited to share the first guest post by Norman Letalik, my staunchest supporter of BoomerVoice since its inception. Norman contributes blog ideas, proofreads every post and is wildly enthusiastic about every trip, big and small, that I suggest for future posts.

Here is Norman’s post on his amazing day at the Canadian Aviation an Space Museum in Ottawa:

Take Flight with the Silver Dart at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum

By Norman Letalik

While Rose Ann explored the tulips around Dow’s Lake, I fed my inner gearhead and visited the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum: http://www.casmuseum.techno-science.ca

The Museum a 10-15 minute drive from central Ottawa, along parkways adjacent to the Ottawa River which take you past Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s Residence, and 24 Sussex Drive, the Prime Minister’s Residence, and also provide beautiful outlook points from which to view the Ottawa River and Quebec.

The Silver Dart is the first Canadian airplane

This first of four blogs on the Museum focuses on the birth of aviation in Canada.

Diligent readers of BoomerVoice will already have some foreshadowing of the birth of Canadian aviation from Rose Ann’s post on her visit to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. (Click here to link to the post)

Prolific inventor, Bell was a key pioneer of aviation in Canada. His summer residence in Baddeck was the site of much of his pioneering work, which started with experimenting with kites and eventually resulted in the Silver Dart, an authentic reproduction of which is on display near the entrance to the exhibits of the aviation section of the Museum.

The display on the Silver Dart makes reference to the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), a group formed by Bell and funded by his amazing wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard.

By way of background, Mabel was born into a wealthy, patrician Boston family. Her father, Gardiner Green Hubbard, was a prominent lawyer, businessman, investor and civic leader. Amongst his many accomplishments, he was the first president of both the Bell Telephone Company and the National Geographic Society.: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gardiner_Greene_Hubbard

Mabel contracted scarlet fever when she was five and became completely deaf. Hubbard wanted the best for his daughter and hired Bell, who initially followed in his father’s footsteps as an elocution specialist and teacher of the deaf, to teach his daughter Mabel.

Folklore has it that one of the reasons that Bell became interested in sound transmitted electronically was because of his efforts to improve the lives of the deaf and his devotion to Mabel.

The Aerial Experiment Association was an “open source” co-operative

The AEA was created in 1907 as a “co-operative scientific association, not for gain but for the love of the art and doing what we can to help one another.” In short, it was an early example of “open source” attempts to advance aviation collaboratively.

At this point Bell was already wealthy, as were his wife and father in-law, who owned a large share of the Bell Telephone Company.

Bell invited four others to join the association: Canadians: Alexander Douglas McCurdy and Fredrick W. “Casey” Baldwin, and Americans: Glenn Curtiss and Thomas Selfridge.

McCurdy was well known to Bell, as his father was Bell’s personal secretary in Baddeck and a prominent inventor in his own right. Shortly before the AEA was formed, McCurdy became a friend of his classmate at the University of Toronto, Casey Baldwin, where they both had just earned engineering degrees. In McCrudy’s case, a mechanical engineering degree, and in Baldwin’s case, both electrical and mechanical engineering degrees.

The Silver Dart is a flying bicycle

Curtiss, like the Wright brothers, prior to getting into aviation owned a bicycle shop. In Curtiss’ case, in Hammondsport, NY.

It is not surprising that the two of the most prominent pioneers of aviation in the US started off tinkering with bikes. Like bicycles, aircraft have to be strong and light. All early aircraft had frames of wood or metal tubing, which relied on principles of triangulation for strength. Many of the skills necessary to build a strong and light bicycle could be transferred to the construction of an airframe.

At this time, there were also efforts to motorize bicycles. Curtiss was at the forefront of this movement and his early motorcycle and aviation engines were best-in-class. The V8 engine that Curtiss designed and installed into his motorcycle made him for a number of years the “fastest man on earth”, when he rode a motorcycle he designed to a land-speed record breaking 136.36 mph/219.45 kph in January of 1907: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curtiss_V-8_motorcycle#/media/File:Glenn_Curtiss_on_his_V-8_motorcycle,_Ormond_Beach,_Florida_

Curtiss’ land speed record was not broken until 1911, when Carl Benz (the inventor of the automobile and co-founder of Daimler-Benz, the manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz automobiles. FYI, Mercedes the name adopted for the vehicles produced by Daimler-Benz was the first name of the 10 year-old daughter of Daimler Benz’ financial backer, Emil Jellinek) developed the Blitzen Benz (Lightning Benz), the first aerodynamic race car: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blitzen_Benz

Interestingly, Carl Benz at one time also worked in a bicycle repair shop.

This is Bell’s Tetrahedral kite

Thomas Selfridge was an American soldier seconded to work with the AEA. Bell had written a letter to President Teddy Roosevelt to ask him to provide a US military officer interested in aviation to join the AEA as the US’s official representative on the AEA. Selfridge, a West Point graduate, was selected, as he already had experience in piloting the US Army’s dirigible.

Later that year, Selfridge flew Bell’s tetrahedral kite, the Cygnus, on a 7 minute flight over Bras d’Or lake in Baddeck, which was similar to the Cygnus 2 model on display in the Museum.

In March, 1908 Selfridge designed the AEA’s first heavier- than-air motor-driven aircraft, the Red Wing, a plane that Casey Baldwin flew on its first flight in Hammondsport, New York: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AEA_Red_Wing

Tragically, Selfridge met an untimely end the following year when he gained the dubious distinction of being the first plane crash victim. Selfridge had been a passenger aboard the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer, piloted by Orville Wright, to consider whether the US military should purchase it, when it crash-landed in March 2018: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Selfridge#/media/File:Fort_Myer_Wright_Flyer_crash.jpg

Orville suffered multiple fractures and was hospitalized for 7 weeks as a result of the crash that was initiated by a propeller failure. The one good thing arising out of this unfortunate fatality was that going forward, all military pilots were required to wear helmets, similar to the ones worn by football players at the time, as the post crash investigation concluded that had Selfridge been wearing a helmet during the flight, his skull would not have fractured, and, like Orville, he would have survived the crash.

Selfridge is buried in Arlington National Cemetery and the failed propeller that initiated the crash sequence is on display in Dayton, Ohio, at the Wright-Paterson Air Force Base’s National Museum of the Unites States Air Force. For many years I practiced aviation product liability law defending aircraft manufacturers, so a visit to this museum is on my bucket list.

This is Curtiss’ amazing V-8 engine

In addition to the Cygnus glider, and the Red Wing, the AEA also produced the White Wing, which was the first aircraft to incorporate Bell’s ailerons (French for “little wings”) which are flaps at the trailing edge of a wing surface that allow a plane to dip or yaw. It also featured a wheeled undercarriage. (FYI, the Red Wing had been mounted on skis and took off from a frozen lake.)

Casey Baldwin designed and piloted the White Wing in Hammondsport. This made him the first Canadian (and British subject, for that matter) to fly a heavier-than-air motor-powered aircraft.

Selfridge also piloted the White Wing, making him the first American soldier to fly a heavier-than-air motor-powered aircraft. Curtiss also piloted the White Wing.

Curtiss eventually became the first American to gain a pilots licence, once they were issued. Wilber Wright got the fifth licence in the US.

McCurdy also piloted the White Wing, but destroyed it beyond repair when he crash-landed it. The White Wing, like the Red Wing, was powered by a Curtiss’ amazing, air-cooled, V-8 engine that produced 40 hp.

The third AEA aircraft was the June Bug designed primarily by Curtiss: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AEA_June_Bug#/media/File:Glenn_Curtiss_in_His_Bi-Plane,_July_4,_1908.jpg

It was successful and won Scientific American magazine’s trophy and $25,000 prize for being the first aircraft to fly more than a kilometre. The event of winning the trophy and prize had been heavily publicized, and an offer had been made to the Wright brothers to have the first go at it, but they declined as they were concentrating on winning a US government contract for their Wright Flyer. The opportunity was then given to Curtiss, who on 4 July 1908, near Hammondsport, on his second attempt was able to fly more than a kilometre and win the prize.

This flight was recorded on film, and was the first ever film recording of an airplane in flight.

The June Bug also used the Curtiss’ amazing air-cooled V-8 engine.

Although Canada had some connection with the Red Wing and the White Wing, and to a lesser degree with the June Bug, it was the Silver Dart, the AEA’s 4th aircraft that gets credit for being the first Canadian flight and, at least arguably, aircraft. T

he Silver Dart was designed primarily by McCurdy, who also flew it on its first flight off the frozen Bras d’Or lake at Baddeck, on 23 February 1909: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerial_Experiment_Association#/media/File:McCurdy_in_plane.jpg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AEA_Silver_Dart#/media/File:AEA_Silver_Dart.jpg

The Silver Dart then flew a record distance of more than 20 miles (32 km) on 10 March 1909.

Note: the Wright brothers claimed to have flown that distance in 1905, but there were no witnesses to that flight.

Although much development work on the Silver Dart took place in Hammondsport, and there had been input by Curtiss and it was powered by Curtiss’ air-cooled V-8 engine, now producing about 50 hp, most of the design input of the airframe came from Canadians McCurdy and Baldwin.

The Silver Dart has silver wings

The Silver Dart got its name owing to the use of silver coloured balloon material that was stretched over its wings.

The operational reproduction of the Silver Dart on display at the Museum was built at the Canadian Air Force Base in Trenton, Ontario, by volunteers in preparation for the 50th anniversary of Silver Dart’s first flight.

The reproduction uses a modern Continental A-65 horizontally opposed, air-cooled 4- cylinder engine (similar in design and layout to the engine that powered the original VW Beetle).

The Silver Dart was the first aircraft to have tricycle landing gear, that has become the overwhelmingly predominant configuration for all landing gears.

It was also of a canard design, with smaller forward wings ahead of the main wings. The canard design is regaining a more prominent place in aviation design, as a result of design work by the exceptional aircraft designer, Burt Rutan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burt_Rutan

Although the reproduction of the Silver Dart at the Museum does not have the original Curtiss air-cooled V-8 engine installed in it, adjacent to the Silver Dart display, the Silver Dart’s original engine is on display.

The original engine was later fitted to a fishing boat, which sank in shallow waters. Because of its historical significance, the engine was salvaged and restored, and subsequently placed on display in the Museum.

Had it not been for Mabel’s generosity ($35,000 which would be nearly $1 Million today) in funding the AEA from her personal fortune, it is unlikely that Bell, Curtiss, McCurdy, Baldwin and Selfridge would have been able to collaborate and build the four significant early aircraft developed by the AEA, culminating in the Silver Dart.

Unfortunately, by 1909, Selfridge was already dead and Curtiss chose not to continue his collaboration with the AEA and instead found a partner in Augustus Moore Herring, to start the Herring-Curtiss Company, which was then renamed as the Curtiss Aeroplane Company. Curtiss used the new company to further develop the June Bug, which became the basis for the Curtiss #1, also called the Golden Bug or Golden Flyer.

Curtiss subsequently became a major player in the aircraft manufacturing field, starting the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in 1916 and then after years of bitter patent fights with the Wright brothers over various aviation patents, merging that company with the Wright brothers’ Wright Company to become the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

Curtiss and the Wright brothers had each been key suppliers of aircraft to the American Air Force during WWI. Following the war, Curtiss sold his interests in his company for $36 million and retired to Florida as a wealthy man.

McCurdy and his friend Baldwin bought the rights to the Silver Dart from the AEA and started the Canadian Aerodrome Company in Baddeck and continued to develop the Silver Dart and even design a monoplane. The company was dissolved in 1910.

McCurdy became the first licenced pilot in Canada and was also the first pilot to fly from Florida to Cuba. He remained in the aviation manufacturing sector and played a prominent role in the Canadian government regarding its aircraft procurement during WWII. After WWII he became the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia.

Baldwin continued to collaborate with Bell, particularly on boat designs, that led to their ground-breaking work with hydrofoils. In 1919, Baldwin set the world water-speed record of 70.86 mph on the Bras d’Or lakes with the HD-4 hydrofoil: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HD-4 designed together with Bell.

Baldwin, like McCurdy, went into public service and subsequently was elected to the Nova Scotia legislature.

My next post ,in a couple  of weeks, on the Museum will comment on one of my passions: classic motorcycles. To my delight and surprise, the Museum has a number of excellent ones on display.

Rose Ann MacGillivray

Rose Ann MacGillivray

World Heritage Traveller at BoomerVoice.ca
I love visiting World Heritage Sites, celebrating the world’s most fascinating places and cultures, and most of all, having fun on a trip. Join me on the road to fun and fascinating places. Thanks for reading – and remember to add your e-mail below for updates!
Rose Ann MacGillivray