History Behind The Card: “Silver Dart” Biplane. And then some.
Card #43 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Dr. Alexander Graham Bell in Edinburgh, Scotland, Great Britain, March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922, Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, Canada.
- John Alexander Douglas McCurdy in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada, August 2, 1886 – June 25, 1961, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
- Frederick. W. Casey Baldwin, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, January 2, 1882 – August 7, 1948, Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, Canada.
- Glenn Hammond Curtiss, in Hammondsport, New York, United States of America, May 21, 1878 – July 23, 1930, Buffalo, New York, United States of America.
- Thomas Etholen Selfridge in San Francisco, California, United States of America, February 8, 1882 – September 17, 1908, Fort Myer, Virginia, United States of America.
- Mabel Bell nee Mabel Gardiner Hubbard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America, November 25, 1857 – January 3, 1923, Chevy Chase, Maryland, United States of America.
I have been looking forward to doing the write-up for this card from the moment I began this blog.
The Silver Dart is Canada’s first aeroplane to fly… and the main photo atop this blog’s main page IS the Silver Dart on its maiden flight.
I know, because I own one of the five original sets of photographs originally owned by one of the AEA members…
After I volunteered to do a write-up on the 100th anniversary of the Silver Dart‘s first flight for Design Engineering magazine, I purchased the above card from E-Bay figuring it might make a nice accompanying image to the article.
Little did I know that that one purchase would not only lead me to create a blog based on the Wills’s 1910 Aviation series of 50 cards, but to collect all of those cards, and all of the other variants of those cards, including the overseas issues of Canada, Australia, China, and of the various tobacco brands: ICW and others, as well as Havelock, Vice Regal and Capstan–the later three with both Black and Green backs and in 75- and 85-card card collections from 1911.
To be honest, I am still working on collecting some of those sets, and where possible, after I get through the original 50 card series, I’ll present those in the 75 and 85 sets that are different in aviation content.
As mentioned, I own one of the five sets of photographs given to an AEA member, one Casey Baldwin.
My father-in-law went to interview his widow, and she inexplicably gave him the photo album of photos.
He inexplicably gave them to me and then promptly passed away. Damn. I nearly lost them all in a house-fire… in fact, the original album got moldy after the fire when it was placed in a box by the insurance people. I had to remove the photos from the album before they went the way of the dodo… and who wants to see a set of images on pioneer aviation lost like a flightless bird?
I am going to present my original magazine article here, written for the January/February edition of Design Engineering magazine, pages 24-27. Anything in (brackets) is my addition for this blog… and I did add in the additional photos of the other aeroplanes and kite:
FLIGHT OF FANCY
Usually whenever the topic of great feats in Canadian engineering arises, people often point to the AVRO Arrow CF-105, the Space Shuttle’s remote manipulator system (SRMS) also known as the Canadarm or even Dr. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Few, however, seem to recall an event that is celebrating its centennial this month that is related to all three of those great engineering feats—one that helped propel the then-fledgling field of aviation to great heights.
While there always seems to be problems in determining the chronology of who created what in aviation, what can not be disputed is that there is probably nothing more uniquely Canadian than having the nation’s first airplane take off from a frozen lake in the dead of winter.
The Silver Dart airplane—or aerodrome as Bell preferred to call the motorized flying machines—flew on Tuesday, February 23, 1909 atop the icy Lake Bras d’Or near Baddeck, Nova Scotia for about one mile (1.6 kilometers) making the first successfully controlled powered flight in Canada and the first British subject to fly in the British Empire.
In the words of pilot J.A.D. McCurdy from his original home notes, volume 58: “The Silver Dart … rose from the ice after traveling about 100 feet (30.48 meters) and flew at an elevation of about 10-to 30-feet (3.05 – 9.144 meters) directly east for a distance of about a half mile (0.81 kilometers). Landed without any jar whatsoever. The speed I should judge about 40 plus miles per hour (64.37 kilometers per hour).”
The Silver Dart earned its wings thanks to the outstanding achievements of the five-man joint Canadian-American venture called the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA)—a group of some of the finest engineering minds alive. The AEA consisted of Bell, two extremely bright and talented University of Toronto engineering graduates McCurdy and Frederick. W. Casey Baldwin, as well as noted American motorcycle racer and engine builder Glenn H. Curtiss, and U.S. Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge, and though not officially a member, but certainly its biggest sponsor: Bell’s wife Mabel (Ma Bell!!!) who believed so strongly in the Association’s goal of a flying machine driven through the air under its own power and carrying a man, that she invested CDN$20,000 dollars of her own money in October 1907—and added an additional CDN$10,000 a year later in September 1908—a total amount equal to about CDN $700,000 dollars today.
Bell, who had caught the aviation bug a decade previous had specific ideas for improving aircraft performance and felt that the AEA’s technical engineering aspirations could help him not only test a few theories, but could improve the fledgling field of aviation and aircraft.
“From a historical perspective, it should be stated that the Silver Dart was the fourth powered, heavier-than-air machine to be flown by the AEA—but it was also the first to fly in Canada,” explains Doug Jermyn, a 36-year veteran flight test and developmental engineer from Pratt and Whitney who, with the aid of the AEA 2005, is building a replica of the Silver Dart in Welland, Ont. to be flown in Nova Scotia as part of the plane’s centennial celebrations (see Inset (below) for more on the replica aircraft).
In what can only be described as money well-spent, the AEA’s Baldwin, McCurdy, Selfridge and Curtiss are each invited to work on aircraft of their own design, while Bell the mentor opted to focused his energies on motorized tetrathedral kites, including the Cygnet 1, a giant kite made up of 3,393 tetrahedral cells and a hollow middle.
Flying over Baddeck Bay on December 1907 in the Cygnet I, Selfridge takes the first recorded flight in Canada of a heavier-than-air machine lasting seven minutes before crashing—crashing implies the craft was not under successful control. Although Selfridge himself was not hurt in this crash, he did die in September 17, 1908 as a passenger on the Wright Brother’s US Army Flyer, becoming the first fatality of powered heavier-than-air aviation.
After the Cygnet I’s success and winter settling in, the AEA picked up shop and moved to its new headquarters in Hammondsport, New York close to where Curtiss manufactured engines for the AEA.
There they begin flying Chanute-Herring bi-wing gliders to test stability while building its first powered bi-plane, the Red Wing, aka Drome No. 1.
Designed by Selfridge, the Red Wing was essentially a bi-wing glider with a tail rudder and a single plane elevator up front with skid runners to allow it to take off from the ice.
Named for the red silk covering its wings, the Red Wing was powered by a push-type propeller meaning that a group of eight or nine men were required to hold the plane back until the motor reached critical take-off power. Flown by Baldwin on March 12, 1908, the Red Wing flew 318-feet and 11-inches (97.2 meters) over Lake Keuka near Hammondsport making Baldwin the first Canadian and British subject to fly an airplane in the first public flight in North America—the Wright Brother’s flights, though highly successful, were never done under public scrutiny thanks to their involvement with the U.S. Army and their need for secrecy. The Wright Brother’s were highly distrustful of Bell and the AEA—especially of Selfridge—fearing that it had infringed on their copyrights. And while Bell claimed to never have seen the Wright Brother’s fly—thanks to their secrecy—he still had great admiration for their bravery and innovation.
The next airplane to fly from the minds of the AEA is the Baldwin-designed White Wing, so-named for its white cotton nainsook wing covering, and, says Jermyn: “was flown by all four of Bell’s AEA boys.”
Similar in design to the first plane, Drone No. 2 used a lighter laminated wooden propeller featuring a Curtiss-built throttle engine and has two Association innovations—ailerons at the wing tips to control lateral movement and a tricycle undercarriage allowing the plane to take off from land, as by its first flight on May 19, its smooth, icy runway had melted.
According to Gerald Haddon, an Oakville, ON-resident and the grandson of McCurdy, he says his grandfather, when telling him all about the AEA during his teen years, mentioned that he claimed to have invented the aileron, though he failed to patent it.
Haddon says that in September of 1908 his grandfather was watching French pilot Henri Farman fly his plane, watching it go up, fly straight, land, have a team of horses turn it around before flying straight, landing and having another team of horses turn it around again. “My grandfather asked him what he was doing, and was informed it was the only way he could turn the plane around—so my grandfather told him of the little wings his plane had,” notes Haddon. “Ahh, little wing – in French we say, ‘aileron’.”
Despite Bell preferring to call the little wings “horizontal rudders”, the White Wing’s innovations had the desired effect allowing it to easily able to surpass the flight distance of its predecessor, flying 1,107-feet (337.4 meters) in two hops.
A month later on June 21, 1908, the Curtiss-designed June Bug (Drone No. 3) was completed and so-dubbed by Bell because of the craft’s resemblance to the June beetle.
The Curtiss design is similar to that of the White Wing, save that the June Bug was built with a longer body shaft for increased horizontal stability, removable wings and a folding tail section. Innovations from the AEA include adding a shoulder fork to control the ailerons and the use of a specially concocted wing dope to reduce air resistance from the wing’s fabric.
After a successful flight on June 25th, 1908 in which the June Bug flies 3,413 feet (1,040 meters), the AEA asks Charles Munn, president of the Aero Club of America to request a trial flight for the Scientific American trophy to be awarded for the first flight over one kilometer (0.62 miles). On July 4, with Curtis as the pilot, the plane flies 5,360 feet (1,553 meters) to win the trophy, and six days later becomes the first aircraft to navigate a complete turn. Two months later on August 29, McCurdy flies the June Bug over a three kilometer (1.864 mile) figure eight—another aviation first.
“One morning after wheeling the plane out from its storage shed, the AEA noticed that the wings had become wet and heavy with dew and so devised a ‘dope’ that could be applied to the wing’s rubberized silk fabric to repel the moisture,” states Haddon. “It consisted of yellow ocher, paraffin and turpentine—and they never had problems with moisture on the wings again.”
Before the end of the year, the AEA retrofitted the June Bug with floats, converting it to a seaplane, but despite dubbing it the Loon, during its trials it failed to break free of Lake Keuka’s water and was dismantled.
“The Silver Dart, the fourth drome, was designed and flown by my grandfather, John A. Douglas McCurdy,” says Haddon.
“Though the Dart was designed by McCurdy, it would be folly to say that it still wasn’t a group effort, as it incorporated features of, and lessons learned from each of the earlier airplanes and kites built by the Association.”
While the previous planes used a 40-horsepower (HP) Curtiss-built engine, in order to spin the Silver Dart’s 8’ (2.43 m)-diameter propeller that was carved from a single block of wood, it used a more powerful but cantankerous Curtiss 50HP, V8 motor to spin an 8’ (2.43 meter)-diameter propeller that was originally created to power Bell’s Cygnet II, a 3,690-celled red silk tetrathedral kite (aka aerodrome No. 5) that failed to fly in three attempts.
The water-cooled engine was created to prevent the engine from over-heating, an innovation that now made the prospect of long-distance flights possible. The original Silver Dart engine can be seen at the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa.
Silver Dart Specifications:
- Length: 39’-4”; 11.9 meters
- Height: 9’-7”; 2.9 meters
- Wingspan: 49’-1”; 14.9 meters
- Wing area: 420.0 square feet; 30.0 square meters
- Gross Weight: 859 pounds; 390 kilograms
Like some of the other aircraft of the day, the Silver Dart featured a canard or two-plane elevator mounted on the front—it was 12 feet (3.65 meters) wide and made the aircraft very sensitive around its pitch axis—and despite the presence of the ailerons, it was still a difficult machine to maneuver, though it was considered a success addition to the plane’s overall design.
The Silver Dart was first test-flown in Hammondsport on December 8, 1908 making three trial flights of about 180 meters (591’) each before being shipped to Bell’s summer home in Baddeck.
Similar in design to the highly successful June Bug, the Silver Dart has its tail section shortened—an idea the AEA correctly believed would aid the craft in turning.
“The day after the Silver Dart’s historic flight,” mentions Haddon, “My grandfather was again at the wheel, and made a flight of four-and-a-half miles (7.24 kilometers), but upon landing, the right wing hit the ice and a wheel collapsed.”
Despite the success of the Silver Dart’s first flight on February 23, 1909 and the fantastic long-distance achieved the next day, Bell was convinced his Cygnet II kite could fly and had both the motor and propeller transferred to the kite. After three more attempts at flight with it failing to leave the ice, Bell has the engine and propeller placed back into the Silver Dart where it made nearly 200 further flights before crashing during a demonstration in front of the Canadian Army at Camp Petawawa on a sandy runway.
That day, the craft had previously made four successful flights, but the Army had decided to base its decision solely on the fifth and final flight when upon the Silver Dart, piloted by McCurdy with Baldwin aboard as passenger, crashed when a wheel got stuck in the sand.
Still, despite the success of the AEA, it disbanded on March 31, 1909 with Bell having the last word, describing the work of group at its last meeting: “The AEA is now a thing of the past. It has made its mark upon the history of aviation and its work will live.”
And it certainly holds true today, as thanks to the AEA and all of its airplanes, including the Silver Dart, Canadians can—weather permitting—simply take an airplane flight around the world should the fancy strike them. However, it’s probably a sure bet that unlike today’s airplane passengers flying encased in their cocoons, the AEA had more fun engineering their wire-framed jaunty jalopies.
To commemorate the Silver Dart’s centennial of flight, Canada Post will be issuing a stamp on the anniversary—one can only hope it’s for Air Mail.
– 30 –
Inset – Re: Centennial Build of Silver Dart Aeroplane:
In anticipation of the centennial of the Silver Dart’s first flight, a group of volunteers gathered in Welland, Ont. near Niagara Falls to build a replica of the plane to fly at the ceremonies in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on February 23, 2009.
After tracking down a copy of the original drawings of the Silver Dart, work began in the summer of 2004. While the idea was to stay faithful to the original drawings, the modern day AEA 2005 discovered its own fair share of engineering concerns and was forced to modify their plane design accordingly, especially when considering safety features for the pilot.
The 2009 version of the craft has been manufactured from Sitka spruce, bamboo and ash for the fuselage and horizontal wing structural spars, vertical struts, wood ribs and strut jackets—plus the addition of some wire, steel tubing, modern wing fabric coverings and good quality tape.
The replica has, for added strength, utilized only approved aeronautical nuts and bolts to hold it all together. Along with seat belts—yes, those magnificent men and their flying machines truly did fly by the seat of their pants—brakes have also been added via foot pedals that on the original simply acted as a foot rest.
The all important ailerons to give horizontal directional control that was originally worked via a yoke around McCurdy’s neck and operated with a shrug, has now been incorporated into the steering wheel and a pulley system attached to the “little wings”.
Along with adding a set of electrical controls for the pilot to monitor engine speed, the replica is using a different engine to ensure the plane has the proper strength to get airborne. The Lycoming 0-145-flight engine produces 65-horsepower, was donated by a group member and sent to Toronto to be thoroughly tested by Leavens Aviation.
Of course, alterations to the plane for safety reasons have also caused its fair share of engineering headaches, too. Not only is the COG (center of gravity) different from its predecessor, but it’s heavier too. As well, during the first trial engine test a mere month to its scheduled flight i99999n Nova Scotia, it was discovered that the engine was not spinning the propeller fast enough to get the ship airborne. During Design Engineering magazine’s visit to the hangar, a volunteer took up a hand saw and cut away two-inches of propeller for each of the two ends. Problem solved.
Recent wind tunnel tests on the replica have indicated that the nose wheel needed to be reduced in diameter to bring about a five-inch (12.7 centimeter) drop at the front of the plane—a reduction that is expected to provide more lift.
Among the many volunteers of have worked on the replica, a partial list of the AEA 2005 includes: Jack Minor who conceived of the idea; Gilles Levesque who has lent the group use of his hangar; Doug Jermyn, a 36-year veteran flight test and developmental engineer from Pratt and Whitney who has assumed a leadership role and his right hand man, Raymond Larson an engineer with Atlas Steel; Carol Jermyn, Gerald Haddon; Ray Larson; Ed Russell; Jaro Petruck; Don Feduck; and Irene Manuel who stitched all of the fabric wing panels while on chemotherapy for cancer. Bjarni Tryggvason, a Canadian astronaut who served as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-85, will pilot the craft during the centennial celebrations.
As you may have noticed, despite the Wills’s card stating that the Silver Dart was designed by Alexander Graham Bell, it was the brainchild of McCurdy.
It was, for its day, one of the best aeroplanes on and off the planet.
One last interesting thing is that the front of the card is the “Silver Dart” Biplane., but the back of the card simply calls it the “Silver Dart.” It doesn’t mean anything, though.
One of Canada’s other great planes was the AVRO Arrow (as mentioned in the first line of my magazine article)… a plane from the 1950s, that helped lay the foundations of a braindrain from Canada to the U.S. to really give the US moon landing program a kick in the butt. As an aside, I have a set of blueprints of the Arrow. They are huge blueprints… and when I get a few bucks I’ll have it scanned to a more presentable size.