[an error occurred while processing this directive] FactsCanada.ca -- Friday Feature 2001-15Fr -- The Silver Dart
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The Silver Dart.

August 10, 2001.

[Craig] John has often complained to me that research for the articles he writes is difficult. I have tried to lend a sympathetic ear, but it's his problem -- I just edit (read "tear apart") what he writes and then you consume it. After researching this article, I know personally of what John speaks. It amazes me that seemingly straightforward facts are interpreted and reported differently depending on the source. The history of the Silver Dart and, in fact, much of the history of early aviation I am learning, is a very good example. Do the Wright brothers deserve their place in history? Some say they don't. Some people can't even agree on which Wright brother made which of the several flights! Even Wilbur and Orville apparently couldn't agree. In writing this article I have done my best to correlate the differing points of view, but I'm sure even I will be criticized by others who discover my article. Following the article I will detail some of the discrepancies I found.


The Silver Dart
By Craig Hartnett (craig@factscanada.ca)

This Silver Dart is not second prize in the Saturday night tournament down at your local pub, nor is it Dodge's brother. The famed Canadian story of the Silver Dart takes place over the frozen waters of Baddeck Bay, Nova Scotia, on February 23, 1909. It's the story of the first controlled, heavier-than-air, powered flight in Canada, and the first such flight in the British Empire. In fact, it's also the story of the first flight by a British subject in the British Empire, for which McCurdy (the pilot) belatedly received pilot licence number one from Britain in the 1950s.

As you will remember from FactsCanada.ca issue 2000-06Su in which John profiled Alexander Graham Bell, Bell was a prolific inventor, and turned his sights on more than just the telephone. In 1907 he founded the Aerial Experiment Association (at the behest of and financed by his wife), comprised of five men: Bell, John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin (these two being engineers who studied at the University of Toronto), Glenn H. Curtiss (a gasoline-engine expert from the United States and, at the time, a designer and maker of motorcycles), and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge (a US military observer included at the request of the American government). After the AEA was dissolved shortly after the flight in Canada of the Silver Dart, McCurdy and Baldwin went on to form the short-lived Canadian Aerodrome Company. McCurdy also went on to become the 33rd lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia (1947-1952). Curtiss went on to become a famous aircraft manufacturer. Selfridge had the dubious distinction of becoming aviation's first fatality, killed in the crash of an aircraft piloted by Orville Wright.

The AEA's purpose was to construct a "practical aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man." (In those days the term "aerodrome" referred to the aircraft, not an airport.) The Silver Dart was the last of four aircraft built and flown by the AEA, primarily in the USA. It was made of wood, steel tubing, bamboo, tape, wire, and the flying surfaces were covered with rubberized silk balloon-cloth. It derived its propulsion from a water-cooled, V-8 engine that developed about 35-40 hp, connected by a chain and sprocket to an "air screw" (called a "propeller" these days) carved from a block of wood. Its horizontal stabilizer (the small wings you see at the tail of most modern aircraft) was placed ahead of the wings in what is referred to as a "canard" configuration. It also had no brakes.

It was under the auspices of this association that the Silver Dart made its first flight in December 1908 in Hammondsport, New York, USA, where it had been built in Curtiss' machine shop. Five years earlier the Wright brothers had made their historic flight, and three years earlier Santos Dumont from Brazil had made the first flight in Europe.

Following its flights in December 1908 in Hammondsport, the Silver Dart was dismantled and transported to Bell's estate in Baddeck, Nova Scotia (on Cape Breton Island). There it was prepared for its historic flight on February 23, 1909, when it flew for about 800 metres (half a mile) at an altitude of about nine metres (30 feet) piloted by the chief designer of the aircraft, McCurdy. McCurdy later told Jim Lovelace, his aide-de-camp while lieutenant-governor, that "it was just like being on a high" after a couple of shots of whiskey and he "wanted to do it three or four more times".

After that historic flight, McCurdy flew the Silver Dart on two circular courses for a total distance of more than 32 kilometres (20 miles) on March 10, 1909. In demonstrating the aircraft for the Canadian Army on August 2, 1909, McCurdy, with Baldwin as his passenger, made the first official passenger flight in Canada. (Apparently they had made the first unofficial, albeit very brief, passenger flight the night before, much to Baldwin's surprise!) Unfortunately, during these demonstrations, the Silver Dart crashed (with no injuries) on the landing surface which had been so poorly prepared by the Army, and was never to fly again. As successive federal administrations have also done in this country, the leadership of Canadians in the international aviation industry was dismissed out of hand by short-sighted bureaucrats -- this time because it was generally believed that aircraft would never be useful in combat. As a result, the remaining members of the AEA took their expertise and their flying machines to where they were appreciated -- south of the 49th parallel.

Today you can see replicas of the Silver Dart in a couple of locations. One is at the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa, and another is at the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum at Halifax International Airport.


Silver Dart specifications:

Length: 11.9 m (39' 4")
Height: 2.9 m (9' 7")
Wingspan: 14.9 m (49' 1")
Wing area: 39.0 sq. m (420.0 sq. ft.)
Gross weight: 390 kg (860 lb.)
Maximum weight: 390 kg (860 lb.)
Number of engines: 1
Power plant: Curtiss
Horsepower: 35-40 hp

I said that I would detail some of the discrepancies that I discovered -- sheer propaganda on the part of our military, in one case. First, though, I'll just say a quick word about research on the Internet, as John and I have discussed many times in the past. The difference between the Internet and a published book is that any idiot can throw up a Web site (look at us!), but it takes a considerable investment of more time and money by the author (not to mention convincing a publisher to take a chance and also invest considerable time and money) to publish a book. Therefore, in the latter case, both the author and the publisher are going to go to a lot of trouble and probably expense to ensure that what is published is accurate (at least in the case of non-fiction). Because of the sheer economics, a Web-site author is not so motivated to check and double-check everything -- partly also because we cannot sell our product for $5.95 per copy as in the case of magazines, or $39.99 per copy in the case of a book. Since we also use information found on other Web sites in our research, we run the risk of compounding inaccuracies. That said, John has found mistakes in published books like the "Canadian Encyclopaedia", so just because it's printed on paper and bound with leather doesn't guarantee that it is infallible. We do the best we can and, as I am doing now, try to point out the limitations of our research when we can.

I didn't find a lot of discrepancies with respect to dates and who did what on which date although, as I alluded to in my introduction, there are such discrepancies with respect to the flights of the Wright brothers. However, I did find that the Nova Scotia Department of Education claims that the Silver Dart's first flight was in Canada! All other sources claim that the Silver Dart flew at least once in Hammondsport, New York, USA, as detailed above. Another site classified the Silver Dart as "commercial transport"! How they figured that out is beyond me. It was clearly never anything but an experimental test bed, and never transported anything except a passenger on a couple of test flights.

One of the best "discrepancies", in light of the short shrift given McCurdy and Baldwin by the Canadian military, is the propaganda (there's just no other word to describe it) on the Department of National Defence Air Force Web site (linked to below). On that page, next to a picture of the Silver Dart, is the following quote:

"... after 300 flights, [the Silver Dart] was presented to the Canadian Army. While not selected for service, the Silver Dart represents the first experiment in aviation by the military."

What a load of hogwash! It's more likely (although I stand to be corrected) that what was left of the Silver Dart after it crashed in Petawawa, Ontario, on military land, was just left there -- hardly "presented to the Canadian Army". How the military can claim the Silver Dart as "the first experiment in aviation by the military" is also beyond me, as it was not their experiment. It's more likely that it was their first experiment in aircraft wreckage removal than anything else.

Pictures of the Silver Dart
Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum Silver Dart replica
Glenn H. Curtiss -- The Henry Ford of Aviation
Department of National Defence
John McCurdy in the Silver Dart



On Sunday John will profile Oscar Peterson, Jane Siberry and Plamondon, Alberta, and tell you about the Glenn Gould Prize.


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