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February 20, 2009

Canadian Airplane History Took Off 100 Years ago


The Wright Brothers oversaw the first flight of an airplane in the US in December 1903.  Alexander Graham Bell, somewhat past his prime, wanted to make his mark with the first heavier-than-air flight in Canada.  With his name and his wife Mabel’s money he brought a group of interested people together to experiment with his vision of flight.  He did this at his mansion in Cape Breton and on February 23, 1909 his Silver Dart biplane took off from the ice of Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton in front of a big crowd in what is considered Canada’s first flight. 

The Cover of the February/March 2009 issue of Beaver magazine – Canada’s History Magazine.

Bell had spent 22 summers in the area at his estate nearby.  Bell, a Scot originally lived in Brantford before moving to the U.S. After his great success as an inventor he wanted to do something with flying machines.  He tried helicopter-like machines and different kite configurations.  It took him a while to get to bi-planes. 

He already had Douglas McCurdy a family friend with engineering skills in his employ.  With the Wright brothers success in 1903 Bell moved ahead quickly and by 1909 his team had something he was proud of.  The team spent some time in the U.S. in winter with some success.  His Red Wing flew in March 1908 and the June Bug won an award for the length of its flight in the U.S. 

The Silver Dart was worked on in the U.S. and moved to Cape Breton so Bell could say he had the first Canadian flight.  Douglas McCurdy piloted the first flight with a select group pushing it until it took off.  It flew about 1 kilometre and landed safely.  Other flights went further. 

Canada celebrated 100 years of the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 with among other things 100 fly-bys by Canada’s Snowbirds in 100 cities in North America.  Many visited North Bay’s Canadian Forces Museum of Aerospace Defence and many will this year too.  With the help of Rudy Mauro a local aviation researcher I was able to put together some local first flight history. 

Callander’s Ernie Rousseau in his Russel-Henderson Parasol Monoplane in 1932 in area’s first flight.

Callander’s Ernie Rousseau built a monoplane that flew in Callander in 1932.  A friend piloted the first flight but Ernie soon followed.  The plane later crashed and was rebuilt. Many flights were taken including several over the Quints’ home in Corbeil. 

Ernie’s second plane was destroyed when some vandals pushed it off the dock in Callander.  His third plane crashed in 1938 and Ernie rebuilt it only to be caught in a snowstorm between Astorville and Callander it and crashed and was totally wrecked with Ernie getting only a few minor injuries. 

On August 2, 1996 the Nugget profiled North Bay’s Harold and Stan Chandler and Jack Richardson. They flew a Gypsy Moth from Montreal to North Bay in 1936 along with some other aviation stories. 

The RCAF tried to reproduce the flight Silver Dart in 1959 on the 50th anniversary of Canadian flight but it crashed.  A group at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton built a replica of the Dart and flew it in early February this year.  They will disassemble it and take it to Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton to fly it on February 23, 100 years to the day of the first flight.

One of the 2009 team members is Gerald Haddon the grandson of Douglas McCurdy. Hugh Muller Alexander Graham Bell’s great grandson will also be at the event.  Good luck. 

Beaver Magazine, Canada’s history magazine has a special report in its current issue.  

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