February 23, 1909. Bras d’Or Lake, Nova Scotia. Douglas McCurdy skitters across a frozen lake at the controls of the fourth flying machine built by Alexander Graham Bell and his Aerial Experiment Association. Officially designated “Aerodrome No. 4” (at this point, aerodrome—from the Greek for “sky runner”—refers to the machine itself, rather than a place to house it), the craft has been christened Silver Dart by McCurdy because of the silver balloon cloth used to cover its wings. McCurdy has also designed its water-cooled engine, which will allow the flying machine to run for longer periods, perhaps even long enough to win the Scientific American prize for the first continuous public flight of more than twenty-five kilometers. But, as he leaves the surface of the iced-over lake and flies 800 meters at 40 mph, McCurdy is making a different sort of history: Silver Dart becomes the first heavier-than-air flying machine to rise into the skies over Canada, or indeed anywhere in the British Empire.
John Alexander Douglas McCurdy was born in 1886 at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the son of Alexander Graham Bell’s personal secretary. With financial assistance from the Bells, McCurdy graduated from the University of Toronto in 1906 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Along with a classmate and fellow engineer, Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin (no relation to dirigible pioneer T.S. “Captain Tom” Baldwin), McCurdy spent a postgraduate summer visiting the Bells in Baddeck. As a result of their conversations during that visit, the three men, along with Glenn Curtiss and U.S. Army Lt. Tom Selfridge, formed the Aerial Experiment Association in the summer of 1907, with the idea of investigating the possibility of heavier-than-air flight. (The Wright brothers were keeping their success at Kitty Hawk four years earlier a secret.) Mabel Bell financed the AEA; McCurdy and Baldwin each received an annual salary of $1,000, roughly equivalent to $25,000 today.
The AEA achieved success in a matter of months, when Casey Baldwin rose briefly into the air near Hammondsport, N.Y., at the controls of Aerodrome No. 1, Red Wing. But just a year later, shortly after McCurdy’s pioneering flight in Silver Dart, Curtiss formed his ill-fated business partnership with Augustus Herring (see 26 Feb 16 post), and the AEA dissolved on March 31, 1909.
McCurdy and Baldwin, with Bell’s encouragement, formed the Canadian Aerodrome Company with an eye toward supplying the aeroplane needs of the British Army. Bell figured England would perceive the significant advantage in having access to a manufacturing facility in Canada, far beyond the reach of the war in Europe that already seemed more than a theoretical possibility.
When the Canadian government proved cool to the idea of military aircraft, McCurdy began exhibiting on his own in the spring of 1910, with his brother Lucian serving as his manager. One of his first public performances was in Montreal, alongside an exhibition team recently formed by the Wrights. By summertime the relationship between Glenn Curtiss and Charles K. Hamilton was in tatters (see 13 Feb 16 post), so Curtiss added his former AEA associate McCurdy—as well as Eugene Ely—to the “Curtiss Exhibition Company,” an entity he was then formally organizing.
McCurdy was present for the Sheepshead Bay meet at which Bud Mars thrilled the public by giving aeroplane rides to women (see 19 Feb 16 post), and indeed on August 27, 1910, McCurdy was credited with accomplishing what the Curtiss press agent termed the greatest of all the experiments at Sheepshead Bay: sending a message to the ground by wireless telegraphy. Wireless technology was already in use by ships, and rumor had it the Zeppelin dirigibles in Germany carried telegraph equipment. Adapting the technology to aeroplanes would clearly be a selling point for Curtiss with the U.S. military.
In October 1910, McCurdy became the eighteenth aviator licensed by the Aero Club of America. One month later, the following story appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country, under the headline “TO FLY FROM LINER”:
New York, Nov. 2–J.A.D. McCurdy, of Glenn Curtiss’ staff, will attempt to fly by aeroplane from the deck of a vessel 50 miles at sea to a point on Manhattan Island next Saturday. The Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, of the Hamburg-American Line, sailing at 10 a.m. Saturday, will carry McCurdy and his Curtiss biplane.
The test, the first of its kind, will be observed by a party of navy and army officers, and a flotilla of torpedoboats will patrol the course. The aeroplane will be launched from a platform built on the forward deck of the ship.
The test is to demonstrate the feasibility of equipping the new liner Europa, the largest ship in the world, now under construction, with a regular aeroplane service for transferring mail at sea.
McCurdy will carry in the test on Saturday a small mailbag, containing letters from the passengers, which he expects to deliver at the New York postoffice.
Reports hailing the event as “a flight such as the world never saw before” did not exaggerate. Captain Frank Fletcher, a high-ranking assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, was quoted as saying that if the experiment proved successful “it would demonstrate that for scouting purposes an aeroplane costing from $5,000 to $10,000 was considerably cheaper and more economical than an armored cruiser costing $5,000,000.”
When bad weather forced McCurdy to reschedule his attempt, the Navy rushed to conduct its own experiment before the German steamship line could succeed. Eugene Ely made the historic flight two weeks later at Hampton Roads, Virginia, an accomplishment that formally marked the birth of naval aviation.
The prospect of even more far-ranging naval flights tantalized the public. In January 1911, McCurdy set out on a ninety-mile solo flight from Key West to Havana, hoping to win an $8,000 prize. No one had ever made an over-water flight of such a distance. Besides which, McCurdy would be out of sight of any land for much of the time, and aerial navigation by compass was in its infancy, so the Navy agreed to station six ships—a lighthouse tender, a revenue cutter, and four destroyers—in a direct line across the Florida Straits, at roughly ten-mile intervals, not merely to provide emergency rescue services but to guide the aviator toward Havana.
McCurdy launched at 7:22 a.m. on January 30, 1911, wearing the same life vest used by Ely at Hampton Roads. As he gained the open ocean under a cloudless sky, McCurdy experienced a mirage: without any point of reference, the sea appeared as a huge vertical wall directly in front of him. At 9:17 he had U.S.S. Paulding, his final guiding ship, in sight, but sixteen minutes later the lubricating oil in his engine ran out and the bearings burned up. He was only twelve miles from Havana, but he had to ditch.
The rudder and the rear elevating planes broke with the impact of the crash landing. Under-wing pontoons did their job in keeping the machine afloat, but it was badly unbalanced. The engine went under water, tipping the front elevator planes high into the air. McCurdy, unhurt, had no need of the life vest and did not so much as get wet. As sharks began circling, he was rescued by the Navy destroyer over which he had just passed.
Although some newspapers characterized the attempt as a failure, the New York Times expressed the prevailing view: “McCurdy will presumably receive a medal, the general sentiment being that his performance is just as meritorious as if he had made the remaining ten miles.” Indeed, the President of Cuba handed McCurdy an envelope, adorned with green and red seals and ostensibly containing $5,000. McCurdy later revealed that the envelope was empty—but he said the American minister to Cuba subsequently advised him to let the matter drop.
On March 17, 1911, McCurdy successfully demonstrated the Curtiss “war machine,” which the U.S. Army had agreed to purchase for its newly formed Provisional Aero Company. He then returned to giving standard exhibitions, but he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the demands for sensational flying. “The trouble with the American public,” he was quoted as saying, “is that they expect aeroplaning to be developed on circus principles.” He himself regarded aviation as “a field for scientific experiment,” and he vowed to do no “fancy work,” promising only that he would make his flights on schedule. June 1911 saw McCurdy’s final flight for Curtiss. He thereafter went into the aeroplane manufacturing business with his brother.
During World War I McCurdy teamed with Curtiss to build the JN-4 “Jenny” for the Allies. Curtiss was able to evade the Wrights’ patent on adjustable lateral surfaces by shipping to England machines that had no means of lateral stability control; the McCurdy plant in Toronto, beyond the reach of the U.S. patent, manufactured ailerons that could simply be added to the Curtiss machines in England.
Following the Armistice, McCurdy and Curtiss formed the Curtiss-Reid Aircraft Company. McCurdy went on to establish the first aviation school in Canada and is considered chiefly responsible for the creation of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1924. With the advent of World War II, he joined the government, overseeing Canada’s aircraft purchase and development. For his considerable efforts, the King appointed him a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
McCurdy served as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia from 1947 to 1952. Various trophies and awards were named after him, as was an airport. In 1959, fifty years after his first flight, he received the McKee Trophy, Canada’s highest aerospace award. When he died of leukemia in 1961, at age 74, he was buried at Baddeck. His headstone looks out over the lake where, in 1909, he inaugurated Canadian aviation by taking the wheel of Silver Dart.
The Canadian Centennial of Flight has produced a short video about McCurdy and Silver Dart. It can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VddF3nq0IGw.