Toronto’s First Aeroplane Flight – Confusing Historical Dates

Golden Flyer 1909 at Toronto Beaches.

Golden Flyer 1909 at Toronto Beaches.

What can I say… according to the Royal Canadian Air Force, on this date, September 9, 1909, pilot Charles Foster Willard made the first aeroplane flight in Toronto in the Golden Flyer aka Curtiss No. 1 aka Curtiss Golden Flyer aka Curtiss Gold Bug.

But, regardless of the number of names, I question the Royal Canadian Air Force on this date, wondering instead if the actual flight did not occur two days earlier on September 7.

I know, I know… who the hell am I to question the facts of the RCAF?

Canadian Brigadier-General Gaston Cloutier even gave me a calendar which states that the event actually occurred on September 9, 1909. (Cloutier was a big help to me in my creation of a magazine article on the Silver Dart aeroplane).

But… according to two newspapers of the day—The Toronto Daily Star (now the Toronto Star which I was a reporter with) and the now defunct Evening Telegram—the event happened on September 7, 1909.

Charles Foster Willard

Charles Foster Willard

First – Charles Willard, born in Melrose, and living most of his life in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts in 1883, he was Harvard graduate, and race car enthusiast before embarking on a career in aviation.

He made his first flight on July 30, 1909 in Mineola, Long Island, NY, in the Curtiss Golden Flyer – the Model D1 – built by Glenn Curtiss – and it was the very first commercial aircraft ever sold.

After receiving a $500 down payment, the plane was delivered to the New York Aeronautical Society in 1909.

The aeroplane was dubbed the Golden Flyer because of the yellow rubberized silk that covered its top and bottom.

It was six-meter long plane was framed in light bamboo, held together by heavy cables. With a 30-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, it could speed up to 60-kph, and had broken several U.S. flight records in its first two months.

According to Wikipedia which got its data from The Pictorial History of American Aircraft, the original Golden Flyer’s specs on the prototype that belonged to Glenn Curtiss are:

  • Crew: One
  • Length: 10.2 meters (33’-6”);
  • Wingspan: 8.8-meters (28’-9”);
  • Gross weight: 250-kilograms (550-pounds);
  • Motor: 1 × four-cylinder Curtiss engine;
  • Power: 25-hp;
  • Cruise speed: 87-kph (54-mph).

Which is a hell of a difference… on horsepower and speed.

I am assuming that after creating his own prototype, Curtiss created a slightly different version to sell, or had tweaked his own plane to sell to Willard, giving it the new power and speed.

I do wonder about the Toronto Daily Star’s description however, that the plane was six-meters long. That is a tremendous difference from Wikipedia.

Charles Foster Willard in his Curtiss Golden Flyer.

Charles Foster Willard in his Curtiss Golden Flyer.

Let’s continue… Willard would become the first person Curtiss had taught to fly, and the fourth holder of a pilot’s license in the USA.

Note that Glenn Curtiss was part of the AEA (Aerial Experiment Association) with JA McCurdy, Casey Baldwin, Lt. Thomas Selfridge and Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone) (and his wife Mabel Bell who gave the group nearly $1-million in today’s money) to create Canada’s first aeroplane the Silver Dart, that first flew in Baddeck Nova Scotia in February of 1909 – just six months earlier.

It was the first aeroplane to fly in Canada and the first to fly in the British Empire, with McCurdy as the pilot.

Once done, the AEA essentially disbanded (Selfridge had died prior to the Silver Dart flight as a passenger in a Wright Flyer flown by Orville Wright becoming the first ever aviation casualty on September 17, 1908).

Anyhow, Willard was eager to prove his mettle, and traveled across North America showing off his aviation skills in exhibitions and in aviation races.

Our story regarding Toronto begins on August 31, 1909.

Hired two weeks earlier to fly at the Toronto exhibition, Willard arrived with his Golden Flyer aeroplane by train and found that the take-off area was only just wide enough for his plane.

So he had workmen build a 90-meter wooden track to act as a guide for the plane – and also so he wouldn’t crash into any of the buildings lining the runway.

If you look at the photo at t he top, you’ll notice that the track is actually a track… that is the front wheel was kept within a pair of boards to keep the plane moving straight until it built up enough speed for take-off. Brilliant.

While that was being built, another team re-built his aeroplane, as it was taken apart to move it from town to town.

By September 2, 1909, Willard was ready to fly. But, because rain had threatened earlier, he had waited and waited… and took off into the sky just as the sun was setting…

Which wasn’t all that smart.

In the dark and no idea how close he was to the water.

A few seconds into the air, he nosed the plane down to get more speed, but found he was already out over the water… and a total of 10 seconds passed form initial take-off to when he crashed the plane with a splash and thrown from the cockpit into Lake Ontario where he floated in the dark until rescuers came.

Now, to have achieved a successful flight, the plane must take off and land safely, which this plane did not do.

So… despite the rah-rah of the city of Toronto of 1909, this accidental flight does not constitute a real flight, even if he did land 90 meters away from where he lifted off.

“It was like trying to fly in an ink pot,” he later told a Toronto Daily Star reporter.

Willard was okay, but the Golden Flyer had a broken propeller and other damage.

Old planes being what they were, Willard had quite the inventory of parts along with him in Toronto, and got the plane ready for another attempt on September 7, 1909.

Though Willard was okay, the plane suffered considerable damage, including a broken propeller.

This time, Willard took off during the day, circled the Golden Flyer over the lake, taking about five minutes to complete a 3.2-kilometer journey before…

… well, Willard was going to touch down on the level sand near the Toronto amusement park at the beach area, but he says that as he approached, he noticed there were too many spectators in the way.

So he ditched the plane into the waters again – this time, apparently on purpose.

He tried a third flight on September 11, 1909, but maybe it was just crap luck or maybe the weird winds around the lake came into play, or the plane wasn’t up to snuff or Willard wasn’t as good a pilot as he thought – but he dumped the plane in the lake yet again.

This time, he packed up and left town with his Golden Flyer.

Still, he was the first person to fly across the Toronto shore at Lake Ontario on, according to the Toronto Daily Star and the Evening Telegram newspapers, on September 7, 1909.

For the record (maybe – I haven’t examined the facts closely – yet), the first recorded flight over the city of Toronto was by Count Jacques de Lesseps on July 13, 1910.

I am unsure if the title of ‘Count’ was given or just assumed by him, but de Lesseps, a French aviator (1883-1927) was the son of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. In 1910 he married Grace Mackenzie, daughter of Sir William Mackenzie, a Canadian railway contractor and entrepreneur.

As for Willard and the people of Toronto causing him to dunk his plane that second time, while probably angry, he probably realized that aeroplanes were such a new phenomenon that no one knew that he needed to have a real long runway and that they shouldn’t stand in his way.

Willard died at the age of 94 in 1977 – always interested an involved in aviation right up until the end.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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