Bits and Pieces
The Silver Dart and Baddeck: Then and Now!
Original Silver Dart
Baddeck in winter
Replica in flight
The historic event took place at Baddeck, Nova Scotia on February 23, 1909; J.A. Douglas McCurdy flew the first heavier-than-air aircraft off the ice of Bras d’Or Lakes to officially launch Canada into the aviation age. This flight was a part of the ongoing experimentation and development by the Aerial Experiment Association, (AEA) under the guidance of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell.
The AEA was comprised of five men; Dr. Bell; Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge (a graduate of West Point Academy and an artillery officer of the US Army); Glenn Curtis (a motorcycle manufacturer in Hammondsport, NY); and two Canadians, both young mechanical engineering students from the University of Toronto - J.A.Douglas McCurdy and F.W. (Casey) Baldwin. The association was the brainchild of Mrs. Mabel Bell, who also volunteered the finances to cover the cost of its operation.
Dr. Bell’s approach was to develop a kite that would offer known stability and carry a man. This unpowered machine carried Selfridge into the air from the Bras d’Or Lakes at Braddeck in October 1907.
With winter coming, the operation was moved to Hammondsport where Glenn Curtis had his motorcycle manufacturing firm and was building engines. Dr. Bell stayed in Baddeck. The remaining members decided that each would be responsible for building a “flying machine,” but all would share their knowledge and experience.
The first machine was the “Red Wing,” built by Selfridge and flown by Casey Baldwin. Next came the “White Wing,” built and flown by Baldwin. The White Wing had ailerons, (moveable control surfaces on the wing tips, conjured by Bell from his home in Washington). Selfridge, Curtis, and McCurdy all flew the White Wing, which crashed after several trials. McCurdy was at the controls but was uninjured in the accident that destroyed the craft.
Next came the “June Bug,” built by Curtis, which won the Scientific American Trophy in July 1908 for a heavier-than-air flying machine piloted over a measured kilometer.
Finally the Silver Dart was crafted by McCurdy as the AEA’s activities reached a fever pitch in the fall of 1908. And then disaster; Selfridge was killed in a Wright flying machine piloted by Orville Wright.
The news was devastating to the members and activity was halted for some time. But then, on December 6, 1908, the Silver Dart was flown in Hammondsport, New York, by McCurdy, who continued to fly it another three times on December 14 before it was disassembled, crated and shipped to Baddeck, NS. Two months later came McCurdy’s epic flight off the ice at Bras d’Or Lakes.
So the Aerial Experiment Association - two American inventors, one U.S. Army Officer, two Canadian university students, with financing by a wealthy American - built and tested an aeroplane in Hammondsport, U.S., and then shipped it to fly again in Canada, putting Canada on the aviation map.
Now - on February 23, 2009 - celebrations were planned and held at Baddeck to commemorate this international success story that holds such importance for Canada. An estimated 2,000 folks arrived at frozen Baddeck for three days of celebrations and self-congratulations. The townsfolk were amazed by the onslaught of winter visitors, but rose to the occasion, heating up cold motel rooms for the visitors. Several restaurants opened for business, and residents opened their homes and their hearts to us all.
On the evening of February 21 a musical salute to Mrs. Mabel Bell was held at the sold-out Cultural Centre. We were treated to a slide show of Mabel with family friends and associates, and we were told the story of her many contributions, both to the AEA and to the community of Baddeck. Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut, inspired the audience with accounts of women’s contributions during the past century. Guitarist and poet, Catherine MacLellan, fiddler and dancer, Jennifer Roland, and harpist and vocalist, Loreena McKennitt, provided some great music.
February 22 gave us a clear, albeit cold day, suitable for flying. The forecast for the anniversary was for stormy, unsettled weather, so the flight of the replica Silver Dart was advanced by the one day. And it flew!
Several initial flights were made (see the February 23 special edition of Bits & Pieces), where the Silver Dart rose to a foot or so above the ice. From my vantage point, it seemed to have difficulty raising the forward elevator (or canard). On the first attempt, the front wheel hit some rough ice and broke. A new wheel was installed and flight attempts continued. Eventually, after modifications the Silver Dart did fly to a reasonable height of some twenty feet, cheering the several hundred frozen onlookers on the ice surface behind the snow fence.
I spoke with pilot Bjarni Tryggvason the next morning. The builders of the replica had used a stable ‘Clark Y’ airfoil for the wings. But they had only used the top surface of the airfoil without the bottom surface, so the result was a substantially deeper cord section that would produce different lift characteristics from that of the original Silver Dart. This resulted in a nose-down pitch that the elevator in front was unable to overcome satisfactorily. In addition, the elevator was locked for a maximum upward pitch angle of 12 degrees to avoid the possibility of the pilot over-controlling the aircraft.
The crew removed an overhead fuel tank and the battery, to shift the CG to a more favourable position, and they also removed the elevator lock to give the pilot greater ‘up’ controllability. The Silver Dart flew.
On February 23, we gathered in the warm Alexander Graham Bell Museum for the official celebration. We heard comments from various dignitaries and/or their spokespersons; we witnessed the unveiling of a new Canadian postage stamp; and the minting of a new commemorative coin by the Canadian Mint…all in honour of the occasion.
The Aerial Experiment Association - this group of international inventors and scientists designed, developed, and flew Canada into aviation history. They published weekly reports of their successes and failures for all to see and to learn from; they were open in all of their efforts and activities; and they were non-nationalistic in their work. They helped open the doors of manned flight to the world, and Canada was the lucky recipient of this venture.
- Jack Dueck