J. A. D. McCurdy, on his February 23rd, 1909 flight, unleashed the power of man to thrill, shock, elevate and set Canadians free from the pull of gravity. He put his hand on the "Arc of History” and bent it towards a momentous day for Canadian aviation.
The year 2009 marks the 100th Anniversary of the first powered, heavier-than-air, controlled flight in Canada by McCurdy in the Silver Dart. He was the first British subject to achieve this in the British Empire. To mark this looming day, there is a determined group of Welland, Ontario residents, who are building a replica of McCurdy’s aeroplane to help re-enact that historic event, which took place in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on February 23rd, 1909.
If one travels down the QEW Highway to Niagara Falls, Ontario and takes the Sodom Road exit, there is a wind sock and a couple of white buildings, one of which looks rather large, standing starkly alone in this predominately farming area. This is home to the Russell Aviation Group owned by Ed and Fran Russell - he an architect by trade but his real passion is aviation. Upon entering the hangar, one comes face to face with a Harvard, a Hurricane, a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt Bf-109. As impressive and breathtaking as these planes are, there is nothing to prepare one for what comes next. There is not only a vintage aeroplane but there is also a replica of the Silver Dart – sitting serenely in the back of this hangar - currently being painstakingly reconstructed by a dedicated and tireless group of volunteers.
Back in the summer of 2004, Jack Minor, a former photographer in the RCAF from Port Colborne, Ontario, who has spent a lifetime immersing himself in the life of J.A.D. McCurdy, floated the idea to some of his aviation contacts of building a replica of the Silver Dart to recreate McCurdy’s historic flight. Minor’s idea was well received and to start the project off, one of the volunteers, an RAA member Gilles Levesque, gave over the workshop behind his house to the Welland Group.
The Silver Dart replica nears completion in Niagara Falls. Considering the amount of labour and skills required to make the replica, one can only marvel even more at the accomplishment of McCurdy and the members of the Aerial Experiment Association who did the same, without modern tools, aerodynamic hindsight and the knowledge learned over 100 years. Photos: Via Jaro Petruck (inlcuding sepia image above)
From the outset and to lead the way, there was soft-spoken Doug Jermyn, a thirty-six year veteran flight test and developmental engineer from Pratt and Whitney. His right hand man, Raymond Larson, hails from Atlas Steel. Both men have built their own aircraft, are engineers, and are deceptively intelligent and eminently suitable to preside over the construction of this aviation treasure. One of Jermyn’s first tasks was to track down the original plans of the Silver Dart by visiting the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa, the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck and by going online to the Alexander Graham Bell archives in Cape Breton University. With a copy of the original diagrams in front of them, work was begun in the summer of 2004. As word spread of this unique project, more and more people offered their services - a carpenter, a welder, a painter, a tool-and-die-maker and a machinist, to name but a few. The two women in the group are Carol Jermyn who has, through countless odourous hours, done most of the painting and a marvelous seamstress named Irene Manuel, who has carried out one of the most arduous jobs of stitching all the fabric wing panels.
The replica being built is as true to the original design as possible. Sitka spruce, bamboo and ash have been employed in the fuselage structure and the horizontal wing structural spars, vertical struts, wood ribs and strut jackets. Throw in some wire, steel tubing, modern wing fabric coverings, good quality tape and that pretty well encompasses all that was used. In this 2009 version, for extra strength, only approved aeronautical bolts and nuts are holding the Silver Dart together. The Lycoming 0-145-flight engine, producing 65 horsepower, was donated by a group member and sent to Toronto to be thoroughly tested by Leavens Aviation. Incidentally, the original Silver Dart was the first aeroplane to be powered by a water-cooled engine as McCurdy’s previous air-cooled engine had frozen up when he had flown the previous AEA aeroplane, the June Bug.
"There's almost everything in that engine except the kitchen sink. But I did use parts of an old kitchen chair to build it," said Don Feduck, President, Air Force Association of Canada 434 (Niagara Peninsula) Wing. Feduck volunteered more than 18 months of his time to drill nearly 1,000 holes, in order to reproduce a replica engine to match the original. Feduck’s model is a wood-metal-plastic version of the original American-built Curtiss V-8 engine (1907) that powered the most famous historic aircraft in Canada – the Silver Dart. After the Anniversary Flight on February 23rd, 2009, the Silver Dart will return to Ontario to have Feduck’s engine mounted on it, to prepare the Silver Dart for entering the museum in Baddeck.
The original 6-cylinder Curtiss engine that powered the Silver Dart is on display at the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa. The team will use a vintage Lycoming engine for the flight and then substitute Feduck's replica engine when on display.
One of the most crucial parts to an aeroplane is the aileron, which is used in virtually all of today’s planes. The development of the aileron in 1908 was entirely that of the five associates of the Aerial Experiment Association and McCurdy considered that it was one of the truly great aeronautical advances of the age and Canada’s eminent contribution to the world of aviation. In its earliest form, the aileron was simply a flat flap mounted on each wing tip and these were attached to the body of the pilot by a harness. The theory was ridiculously uncomplicated. When a flyer felt a wing beginning to lower on his right, for example, it would be his instinctive tendency to lean in the opposite direction. Now, with his lean harnessed to the aileron, the wavering craft got the corrective action it required.
One other device, which was developed by the AEA, was the tricycle landing gear. The aeroplane wheels at that time were light motorcycle wheels. Prior to February 23rd, 1909, all experimental flying craft had utilized either runners or a launching device such as the Wright Brothers had used at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although there were no brakes in 1909, Jaro Petruck, a former television editor, has undertaken the task of providing them for the 2009 Silver Dart. (As a footnote, Doug Jermyn has mentioned that tracking down the right diameter size wheels has been a minor headache for him).
The Silver Dart comes together on the floor of the Ed Russell's hangar in Niagara Falls, Ontario. To the left is Russell's beautiful Messerschmitt Bf.109. Photo: Via Jaro Petruck
Some of the many dedicated volunteers who have taken Jack Minor's idea and have made it a reality stand with Don Feduck's beautiful full scale model of the original Silver Dart engine. Left to right: Don Feduck, Gerald Haddon, Doug Jermyn, Ray Larson, Ed Russell and Jaro Petruck. Photo: Via Jaro Petruck
Of paramount difference, between constructing the Silver Dart of today and building the 1909 version, is that Jermyn and Larson have stronger materials and much more aeronautical knowledge at their finger tips than McCurdy had in his time. For example, in 1909, the associates – as they called themselves - of the AEA, had to rely on what they had learned from their previous aeroplanes and the reasons behind those that had crashed. From the Red Wing, White Wing, June Bug and what had been absorbed from their kite flying and glider days, McCurdy, Bell, Baldwin, Curtiss and Selfridge all pooled their experiences into a written Bulletin, which was the subject of a weekly meeting, where they could discuss what each one had learnt and pass that invaluable knowledge on to the other members of the group. Consequently, when McCurdy designed and built the Silver Dart, he was relying on his associates’ previous experience and was able to call upon their advice. But that was as far as it went …
Bjarni Tryggvason - an erudite and affable Icelandic Canadian astronaut, whose family emigrated to Canada in 1953, will fly the Silver Dart in Baddeck, Nova Scotia on February 23rd, 2009. Currently, he teaches Flight Dynamics at the University of Western Ontario and has been conducting wind tunnel tests on a Silver Dart model during which on one occasion, this writer was present. On the basis of his findings, he and Jermyn are able to make subtle changes to the Silver Dart utilizing information that would have been unavailable to McCurdy when he designed and built the Silver Dart in 1908. For example, recent wind tunnel results have indicated that the nose wheel needs to be reduced in diameter to bring about a five-inch drop at the front of the plane. Tryggvason is hoping that the reduction will bring about a greater lift to the Silver Dart when he takes to the skies in Baddeck on February 23rd 2009. Doug Jermyn is now on the prowl for his smaller wheel.
Gerald Haddon is greeted at the Silver Dart assembly hangar by Bjarni Tryggvason one of Canada's astronauts. Tryggvason will pilot the Silver Dart replica at Baddeck on the 100th anniversary of flight in Canada. 100 years ago, Haddon's grandfather set in motion a new form of transportation in Canada that would culminate in Canadians reaching space. One wonders if McCurdy could ever have imagined where his flight path would take us. Such is the Arc of History. Photo: Jaro Petruck
The Silver Dart build team - volunteers who have committed themselves to make the project a success. Photo via Silver Dart Centennial project.
During the summer of 2008, Ed Russell was reading Niagara This Week, and noticed a story about the Welland Group, who had by now outgrown the workshop and were looking for a suitable building in which to house the expanding Silver Dart. Given his love and fascination with aircraft, this generous gentleman very kindly offered space in his hangar to this Group to finish their task. And therefore, today, the almost-finished Silver Dart sits majestically at the back of the hangar, awaiting its first big challenge—to test the engine in about a week’s time. Ray Larson is putting the final touches to the 65 horsepower beast and as soon as he has poured in a gallon and a half of gas into – what seems - a rather small petrol tank and put the oil in, she will be ready to go.
I had heard about the Welland Group and what they were accomplishing: my curiosity was piqued. Jack Minor brought me to the Russell Hangar in September 2008 to see the aeroplane and to meet some of the volunteers. It was quite a day as our visit was unannounced. The highlight, of course, was looking at the Silver Dart, feeling it and being allowed to sit in the “cockpit”. At first, my reaction at being so close to this national aviation emblem was similar to many others. I stood with my jaw ajar, staring in awe until Doug Jermyn thoughtfully broke the silence and began to give me a rundown on what he and the group had achieved in over four years of exacting labour As I was preparing to leave, Jermyn asked me if I would like to work on the Silver Dart. When I strongly informed him that I possessed no mechanical knowledge or requisite skills, he calmly assured me that he and Larson would “show me the ropes”. On arriving home, my wife was intrigued to learn of my new “job” offer, and fully aware of what I do not possess, politely enquired if the aeroplane was meant to fly. “Yes, of course,” I replied.
Jack Minor and Gerald Haddon share a moment with the Silver Dart. For Haddon, the chance to sit in the same spot as his grandfather had 100 years ago, was a powerful moment. Photo: Jaro Petruck
And yes indeed, that is how the “invitation” has turned out as I arrive from Oakville to begin my day alongside these two remarkable engineers, who gently guide me through the vastly complex task of putting wood, wire, tape, steel rods, grommets, bolts and nuts all together to construct a flyable aeroplane. I relish every minute of being there and I realize what a privilege it is to be able to work on my grandfather’s aeroplane.
One of the many concepts my grandfather taught me was that a life of giving would bring more fulfillment than a life of taking. The total accumulative time that the Welland Group has put in since the beginning of this magnificent venture is approximately 5,600 hours, with many donating their tools and their own money. Those whom I have had the honour of meeting and working alongside, have rekindled in me the sentiments expressed by Sir Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Sitting in the Silver Dart, looking forward over the canard to the frozen surface of Baddeck Bay, John Douglas Alexander McCurdy could not have imagined this moment. His grandson, Gerald Haddon addresses a crowd of Canadians at Vintage Wings of Canada 's roll-out of Hawk One. In the background stands a 55 year old all-metal jet-powered aircraft soon to be painted in the spectacular markings of an aerobatic team that celebrated the 50th anniversary of his achievement. In the middle ground stand (L-R) Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who has seen Baddeck from space, Paul Kissmann the Hawk One Sabre test pilot and former commander of a squadron in the Canadian air force - something McCurdy might have imagined in 1909 and Tim Leslie, the man who now tests the outer extremes of the aerodynamic science that McCurdy helped define and who came up with the idea for a powerful way to pay tribute to the men of the Aerial Experiment Association - Hawk One. Photo: Peter Handley
One hundred years later, the now famous outline of McCurdy sitting in the Silver Dart rises on the surface of the metal skin of a Canadair Sabre Jet - now classified as "vintage". Such is the "Arc of History". Photo: Peter Handley