J.A.D. McCurdy: the father of Canadian military aviation

News Article / March 29, 2019

By Honorary Colonel (retired) Gerald Haddon

On February 23, 1909, 110 years ago, J.A.D. McCurdy made history when he took flight in the Silver Dart in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. It was the first-ever powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight in the British Commonwealth, and the birth of Canadian Aviation. As the First World War approached, Mr. McCurdy was also a driving force behind the development of military aviation in this country. In this article, his grandson, Honorary Colonel (retired) Gerald Haddon, looks back at his grandfather’s legacy as the father of Canadian aviation.

Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by the phenomenon of flight for much of his life, making numerous sketches of flying machines more than 500 years ago.

Equally captivated by the mystery of flight was a young boy born in the hamlet of Baddeck, Nova Scotia on August 2, 1886. His name was John Alexander Douglas McCurdy.

Canadian aviation began when J.A.D. McCurdy shook loose the surly bonds of earth—in this case the frozen surface of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake—on February 23, 1909 when he made the first controlled flight of an aircraft by a British subject, anywhere in the British Empire in Baddeck. His fragile aeroplane, which he designed and built, was called the Silver Dart.

In 1959, the Chairman of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor, wrote that he had known explorers and pioneers Lindbergh, Amundsen, Byrd, Peary, Shackleton and said, “I regard J.A.D. McCurdy as a man who ranks with the very greatest of these.”

I have been invited to write this article as the proud grandson of the man whom many consider to be the Father of Canadian aviation: Honorary Air Commodore, The Honorable John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, also known as “John the Baptist” for being a chief force behind the founding of the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with William G. Barker and William A. “Billy” Bishop.

In 1974, McCurdy was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame as one of 79 inaugural members. His citation reads

“The dedication of his engineering talents to the development of manned flight was a prime factor in the birth of North America’s aviation industry and has proven to be of outstanding benefit to Canada”.

The Aerial Experiment Association

In the summer of 1885, Alexander Graham Bell was visiting Baddeck to escape the summer heat and humidity of Washington, DC, where he lived with his wife and two daughters. Bell immediately fell in love with Cape Breton’s countryside, which reminded him of his native Scotland; of the hamlet’s 100 people, a large proportion were Scottish, further cementing Bell’s feelings toward Baddeckers.

Walking along the high street on day, Dr. Bell happened to glance through the window of the Cape Breton Island Reporter newspaper office where he noticed a man struggling with his telephone. Bell entered the office and offered to help. He dismantled the phone and pulled out a dead fly. When Bell returned the phone, the astonished gentleman asked him how he had so expertly repaired the device. In his soft Scottish accent, Bell replied, “My name is Alexander Graham Bell and I invented it”. Arthur McCurdy—his telephone restored—was the father of J. A. D. McCurdy and soon became good friends with Bell. The next year, 1887, when Bell returned to Baddeck, he persuaded Arthur to become his personal assistant.

Bell constructed a beautiful home called Beinn Bhreagh on the peninsular overlooking the hamlet of Baddeck and it was here that he built a laboratory to carry on his scientific experiments of flight. As a young boy, McCurdy could be found at Beinn Bhreagh helping Bell with his glider and kite experiments. He met many famous scientists and inventors drawn to Baddeck because of Dr. Bell’s worldwide reputation.

Having lost two sons in infancy, Bell wanted to adopt my grandfather, so strong was the bond that developed between the two. However, Bell did become a godfather to my grandfather and, in 1893, Dr. and Mrs. Bell took my grandfather, age seven, to Washington where he spent a very happy year as part of their family.

McCurdy was scarcely sixteen when he entered the School of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1906. He returned to Baddeck with his best friend F.W. Casey Baldwin, a fellow U of T engineer. One dark and rainy night in September 1908 Mabel Bell came into the living room of Beinn Bhreagh with some hot coffee, watched the conversation between McCurdy, Baldwin and Bell for a few moments.

“Now Alex, you have some pretty smart young engineers here,” she said. “And they’re as interested in flight as you are. Why don’t we form an organization?’ Thus, the Aerial Experiment Association was born on October 1, 1907. Not only was the original suggestion that of Mrs. Bell, but it was she who insisted upon financing the AEA. The five group members called themselves “Associates”: Alexander Graham Bell, J. A. D. McCurdy, Casey Baldwin, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and Glenn Curtiss. The Aerial Experiment Association was formed with one purpose in mind: “To get a man into the air”.

“We breathed an atmosphere of aviation from morning till night and almost from night to morning,” said Bell. “I may say for myself that this Association with these young men proved to be one of the happiest times of my life.”

Two of the most notable and lasting achievements of the AEA were the development of the aileron and the tricycle landing gear. Ailerons are used to generate a rolling motion for an aircraft and are small-hinged sections on the outward portion of a wing that allows a plane to bank to the left or to the right. In a 1949 CBC interview, my grandfather said of the aileron: “This is the system used universally to this day, and I consider it to be Canada’s outstanding contribution to aircraft development.” Incredibly, 110 years later, the aileron and the tricycle landing gear are still used on aircraft worldwide.

The first of the four aeroplanes built by the Aerial Experiment Association at the beginning of 1908, called the Red Wing, crashed on its second flight because the pilot, Casey Baldwin, had no lateral control. The inventive minds of the AEA went into action to devise some method of meeting this instability challenge. The result was a hinged controllable arrangement of moveable wing tips called “little wings” which, when built into the White Wing, (the AEA’s second aeroplane) proved their worth from the beginning. The June Bug and the Silver Dart, the AEA’s third and fourth aeroplanes, had ailerons installed and the White Wing was the first to be fitted with the tricycle landing gear.

McCurdy flew the earlier aircraft, which were constructed at Hammondsport, New York, to take advantage of Curtiss’ machine shop, throughout 1908. In January 1909, the Silver Dart was shipped by rail from Hammondsport to Baddeck for its historic flight.

This is how my grandfather described that historic day, February 23, 1909:

“The whole scene is still very vivid to me. It was a brilliant day in more ways than one. The sun was glaring down on the ice of Lake Bras d’Or, which is near Baddeck. The town had turned out in a festive mood, done up in mufflers and heavy fur hats. The town, by the way, consisted largely of very doubtful Scotsmen. Most of them were mounted on skates—the kind you strap to your feet. They didn’t say much—just came to wait and see. The aeroplane, or aerodrome as Dr. Bell referred to it, was surrounded by people.

“During the early afternoon it was wheeled into place. The propeller was cranked and with a cough, the motor snorted into life. I climbed into the pilot’s seat. With an extra snort from the motor, we scooted off down the ice. Behind came a crowd of small boys and men on their skates—most of them still doubtful that I would fly. With a lurch and a mighty straining of wires we were in the air. It was amusing to look back and watch the skaters—they seemed to be going in every direction—bumping into each other in their excitement at seeing a man actually fly.

“In taking off I had to clear one old Scot, so doubtful I would fly, that he had started off across the ice with his horse and sleigh. I think they both had the daylights scared out of them. I travelled three-quarters of a mile at a height of about thirty feet before coming to the surface of the ice. I will say the doubting ones overcame their feelings in short order.”     

More firsts

The chronicle of McCurdy’s aviation firsts is formidable. He was a true visionary of his time with his accomplishments ranking in the world vanguard of aviation.

He was the first in the world to use a water-cooled engine, this being on the Silver Dart. While demonstrating the potential of aeroplanes in front of the military in Petawawa, Ontario, in August 1909, he took Casey Baldwin up on August 2, as Canada’s first passenger. In an attempt to demonstrate the maneuverability of an aeroplane—through the use of ailerons—McCurdy flew the first figure 8 in the world on August 29, 1908.

Along with Baldwin, he formed Canada’s first aircraft production company in April 1909, The Canadian Aerodrome Company, located in Baddeck, from which emerged Canada’s first powered aircraft built in Canada, called Baddeck No. 1. McCurdy is attributed with the first wireless message sent from an aeroplane, on August 27, 1910, while flying over Sheepshead Bay, New York. The message read: “Another chapter in aerial achievement is recorded in the sending of this wireless message from an aeroplane in flight.” Later, he also sent and received the first wireless transmission from Palm Beach, Florida while aloft on March 6, 1911.

Because the flight of the Silver Dart was the first in the British Empire, Great Britain’s pilot’s license Number One, was granted to McCurdy. In October 1910, he became the first Canadian to be issued a pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America in affiliation with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

He set the world biplane speed record at Belmont Park, New York State, in 1910 and was the first to demonstrate the possibility of bombing from the air. McCurdy flew the world’s first flying boat on Baddeck Bay on June 1, 1910, and he made the first oceanic flight from Florida to Cuba on January 30, 1911. He then made the first inter-city flight in Canada on August 2, 1911, when he flew in a race from Hamilton to Toronto—which he won! McCurdy also made the first flight in Mexico.

War arrives

Before the First World War, McCurdy articulated the need for Canada to have an air arm as he sensed the hostilities that were gathering on the horizon. He foresaw the potential of the aeroplane for both military and commercial use. Ever since his flight in 1909, McCurdy had been lobbying the government of Wilfred Laurier for the development of an air fleet.

In 1914 McCurdy tried to convince the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Sam Hughes to set up a Canadian Air Arm but was refused by Colonel Hughes who reputedly exclaimed, “The aeroplane is an invention of the Devil and will never play any part in the Defence of a Nation, my boy!” Nevertheless, in September 1914, Hughes authorized the establishment of a small Canadian Aviation Corps, which failed miserably, putting the development of a Canadian air force on hold for a number of years.

Prime Minister Robert L. Borden also declined McCurdy’s entreaties for a Canadian aerospace force although he later acknowledged, however, that McCurdy had been a driving force behind the establishment of the Royal Canadian Air Force on April 1, 1924, along with William Barker and Billy Bishop.

In the spring of 1915, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motors Limited, a subsidiary of the Curtiss Corporation in Buffalo, New York, was established under the management of McCurdy. The company, which produced Curtiss JN-3s, also set up Canada’s first aviation school, the McCurdy Aviation School (later known as the Curtiss Aviation School), in Long Branch in Toronto and on Toronto Island to train pilots for the Royal Naval Air Service. The first student pilots began their training in May 1915 and graduated in July. After this initial training (at their own expense, although they could be reimbursed if their training was successful) in Canada, the newly fledged pilots travelled to Britain to finish their training and join the British forces to serve in the war. It is worth noting that no pilots were killed or injured in their training under McCurdy’s leadership. The British were much impressed with the quality of the 300 pilots trained by the school.

In 1917, the British government developed a plan to recruit and train Canadians for service in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service; the project, the Royal Flying Corps Canada (RFCC) got underway in January and continued until the end of the war. The Imperial Munitions Board established Canada Aeroplanes Limited (CAL) to produce JN-4 Canucks for the RFCC and purchased the Curtiss factory on behalf of CAL. The IMB also took over the Long Branch airfield for the RFCC.

After the First World War, and in a bid to be a part of the burgeoning development of commercial air traffic, McCurdy formed the Reid Aircraft Company in 1928, establishing a plant in Montreal for the manufacture of many types of airplanes. The following year the company merged and became known as the Curtiss-Reid Aircraft Ltd, a name which was soon to become known the world over: McCurdy was the company’s president.

With the advent of the Second World War, McCurdy became “the supervisor of purchasing and assistant director-general of aircraft production” for the government. His duties were many and in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the Canadian war effort, McCurdy was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Using the knowledge he’d gleaned from the First World War, McCurdy helped advise the government in setting up the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War. With its large open spaces and distance from the theatre of war in Europe, Canada was the logical choice for the establishment of the BCATP. This plan remains the single largest aviation training program in history with its graduates of pilots, navigators, gunners, wireless operators, flight engineers and bomb aimers numbering 131,553.

Honours and recognition

His career reached a high point when Prime Minister Mackenzie King appointed McCurdy the twentieth lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia in 1947, a post he held until 1952. He had never forgotten his Nova Scotia roots and, when the press besieged my grandfather for a comment on his regal appointment, he said he was privileged and honoured and would perform his duties “as well as a country boy from Cape Breton could”.

In 1954, the Institute of Aircraft Technicians (now part of the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute) introduced The McCurdy Award, which “is presented for outstanding achievement in the science and creative aspects of engineering relating to aeronautics and space research”.

The Royal Canadian Air Force celebrated the 50th anniversary of his historic flight by building and flying a replica of the Silver Dart over the Bras dʼOr Lake on February 23, 1959.

Also on February 23, 1959, McCurdy was appointed to the rank of honorary air commodore for the RCAF, “in recognition of his outstanding contribution to Canadian aviation over the past 50 years”.

And also in 1959, McCurdy was awarded the Trans-Canada (McKee) Trophy “in recognition of his meritorious service in the cause of Canadian Aviation during the previous 50 years, and for his outstanding contribution to the success of the 50th anniversary of powered flight observances during 1959.” The trophy was presented to him in November 1960.

The Royal Canadian Air Force Association also established the J.A.D. McCurdy Trophy “in recognition of outstanding and praiseworthy achievements by Canadians in the field of civil aviation”.

One hundred years after the flight of the Silver Dart, the airport in Sydney, Nova Scotia was renamed as the J. A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport took place. And in 2012, McCurdy was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, the pantheon of engineering excellence that honours individuals “whose outstanding scientific or technological achievements have had long-term implications for Canadians”.

The 2009 Silver Dart replica

I had the privilege of being part of the team, aptly named the Aerial Experiment Association 2005 Group, which built the 2009 Silver Dart replica. In February 2009, for the Centennial of Flight Celebrations, the Aerial Experiment Association 2005 group duplicated the 1909 feat by flying a replica Silver Dart over the same expanse of frozen ice.

The pilot was a former Canadian astronaut, Bjarni Tryggvason, who was the payload specialist on the 1997 Space Shuttle. In a word, Tryggvason described the first flight of the Silver Dart in nearly a century as “majestic.” Having flown the Silver Dart and the Space Shuttle, he is immensely proud to say that he has gone from flying the highest and fastest, to the lowest and slowest!

What a breathtaking moment it was to see the Silver Dart take to the skies. It was if time had stood still and when somebody asked me, “What would your grandfather do if he were here with us today?”

I answered, that he would probably say, “Move over: I’d like to fly her now.” In May 2013, the 2005 Silver Dart replica made its way to a new permanent home at the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck.

End of life

The latter years of my grandfather’s life were spent in Montreal, Quebec, where he died on June 25, 1961.

As his funeral procession slowly wound its way through the streets of Montreal, the Royal Canadian Air Force paid their final respects, with full military honours, to the man whom many regard as the Father of Canadian Aviation. 

J.A.D. McCurdy is buried in his home village of Baddeck; his tombstone faces the Bras d’Or Lake from where he made his historic flight and where Canadian aviation took its first steps. He placed his hand on the “Arc of History” and bent it towards the milestone of Canadian aviation.

An engineer by profession, and an innovator and adventurer by spirit, he was the astronaut of his time.

Gerald Haddon served as honorary colonel of the RCAF’s Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering in Borden, Ontario, from 2010 to 2014.


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