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The Flight of the Silver Dart, Feb. 23, 1909

Silver Dart
First Flight of the Silver Dart

Silver Dart
Ariel Experiment Association

Silver Dart
Bell Residence

Silver Dart
Ice Activities
(Photos: The Silver Dart, H. Gordon Green, Brunswick Press)

It could be said that first flight belonged to no nationality; it was a gift waiting to be discovered by anyone with ‘a fire in their belly’ and an incurable longing to break free of the earth. If reports are accurate, by the late 1800s and early 1900s many individuals of different nationalities were inventing and flying their machines of various designs. Canada’s contribution came quite late in this flurry of activity, with the flight of the Silver Dart at Baddeck Bay, Nova Scotia, on February 23, 1909.

This was the ‘first’ powered, heavier-than-air flight in the British Commonwealth, five years after the Wright Brothers were officially credited with the first ever powered, controlled flight in December 2003, duly witnessed and verified.

Compared to the Wright’s paranoid toiling at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the development of the Canadian flying machine was a very public, group effort from individuals who belonged to the Aerial Experiment Association, or AEA. This organization was established for the specific purpose of achieving controlled flight in a powered, heavier-than-air flying machine, or aerodrome as they were then called.

There were five members: John Alexander Douglas (JAD) McCurdy, an engineer, who was the pilot for the credited flight; Casey Baldwin, an aviation-minded engineer and former classmate of McCurdy’s at the University of Toronto; a bicycle maker from Hammondsport, New York, the enormously talented Glen Curtiss; and Thomas Selfridge, a Lieutenant detailed by the U.S. Army to observe the AEA’s activities. Selfridge, until his death in September 1908 in the crash of a Wright Flyer, had become intensely involved in the AEA’s projects, building and test-flying various machines during development of the Silver Dart. All this talent and enthusiasm was guided by the inspirational genius of inventor Alexander Graham Bell and financed by Mrs. (Mabel Hubbard) Bell, who was a lady of means and obviously some foresight.

Bell captured the spirit of modern day homebuilding in his late 1908address: “We breathed an atmosphere of aviation from morning ‘til night and almost from night to morning. Each felt the stimulation of the discussion with others, and each developed ideas of his own upon the subject of Aviation, which were discussed by all. I may say for myself that this Association with these young men proved to be one of the happiest times of my life.”

The rest of the story has become part of our own national history. The silvery winged aircraft, the clear cold day, the frozen lake, and the crowd of dour Scots milling around on ice skates uttering dire predictions for this ‘dubious’ adventure. (How Canadian can you get?)

For the record, McCurdy’s flight stretched about a half-mile at an altitude of 10 to 30 feet and an airspeed of approximately 40 mph. The pilot landed the aircraft back on the ice “without any jar whatever.” Always a good ending to a perfect flight!

A number of websites have popped up on the Internet to commemorate the anniversary. A notable one is www.silverdartreplica.com , produced by AEA 2005, a group of homebuilders in Niagara on the Lake who are producing a true-as-possible replica of the Silver Dart. (That airplane, C-IIGY, was successfully test-flown on February 6 and will re-create the historic flight on the original site at Baddeck, NS, on February 23, 2009.) Details of the 1909 flight and the specs and flying career of the original and replica Silver Darts are well detailed there and on many other websites.

William Wojcik writes an interesting description of the 1909 controls in the January edition of UPAC News, the Ultralight Pilots Association of Canada’s newsletter, which I have excerpted:

“The tip ailerons were originally controlled with a ‘shoulder yolk’…Through a series of pulleys and cables, the shoulder control mechanism would activate the aileron to initiate or counter bank. There was no stick back then, just a steering wheel patterned after an automobile. Turning the wooden grooved wheel would swing the rudder; banking would be by the pilot leaning…Incidentally, pushing or pulling back on the wheel would tip the whole biplane-style front elevator (it measured almost 12 feet in width) After a few degrees of up input, the elevator would create more drag, (hence the leading edge extensions for the more modern version).”

The take-off was thought to be about 30 mph with a cruise of 35 to 38 mph…Stalling speeds were “unpredictable.”

The 1909 Silver Dart would have qualified as an ultralight homebuilt, as is the 2009 C-IIGY. After the centennial flight, C-IIGY will be reconfigured as a non-flying replica and displayed at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada in Baddeck.

The following program of events at Baddeck is kindly provided by the Silver Dart Centennial Association. Along with the flight of the Silver Dart, there are some other premier events beginning there and continuing across the continent during 2009. If Nova Scotia is not in your plans, take a few minutes on February 23 to consider and enjoy your inheritance from that first flight. The early flyers were the pioneers who made flight a possibility for us all!

Silver Dart Centennial Celebrations

February 20-23

  • Weather permitting, a flight (or more) of a replica Silver Dart to be flown by former astronaut Bjarni Trygausson
  • The Alexander Graham Bell museum is open throughout.
  • The Silver Dart Centennial Anniversary Welcome Centre featuring exhibits, information and media services will be open.

February 20

  • National Aviation Art Exhibit at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum
  • A CF18 cockpit simulator on display at the Museum

February 21

  • 100th Anniversary breakfast
  • Salute to Mabel Bell at the Wagmatcook Cultural Centre

February 22

  • Silver Dart Centennial Gala
  • The Skyhawks, the Canadian Forces Parachute Team, perform

February 23

  • Flypasts by a mix of military aircraft and by Hawk One, an RCAF F-86 Sabre to be flown by astronaut, Chris Hatfield
  • The Skyhawks, the Canadian Forces Parachute Team perform
  • Royal Canadian Mint Centennial of Flight Commemorative Coin Launch
  • Canada Post First Day Cover Ceremony with commemorative cancellation stamp
  • Unveiling of the Silver Dart Anniversary Plaque
  • Silver Dart Centennial Reception
  • Fireworks display.           

For those flying in for the celebrations, the airports at Baddeck Crown Jewel Resort, Magaree, Sydney, and Port Hawksbury are listed in the CFS.

Come join in the celebrations! We hope to see you at Baddeck, and if you need further information, full details of events are available at www.flightofthesilverdart.ca, or you can contact the Silver Dart Centennial Association office at 902-295-2009.

- Jean Dueck

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