Learning to fly in Canada wasn’t without its risks

Published 5:57 am Saturday, February 1, 2020

For those people who read last week’s column, it was pointed out to me that Doug McCurdy was not the first Canadian to fly a heavier-than-air machine. It was Walker Fredrick “Casey” Baldwin who flew a plane called the Red Wing. 

He flew this plane in the United States at Lake Keuka near Hammodsport, New York, on March 12, 1908.

The reason for the Red Wing name, it was covered with leftover fabric from Alexander Graham Bell’s tetrahedron kite which carried Lt. Tom Selfridge into the air pulled by a steam engine boat on Dec. 6, 1907, from Lake Bras’d Or.

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As I remember, my reference about McCurdy should have included the phase, “the first airplane flight in the British Empire.”

There was an arrangement to show off the Silver Dart which had flown over 1,000 miles to the military officials near Ottawa.

McCurdy made four successful flights, but on the fifth flight, he landed on loose sand and the narrow motorcycle wheels dug in. He and the plane did a somersault, which destroyed the Silver Dart and broke McCurdy’s nose. Incidentally, that was the most serious injury McCurdy had from his flying experiences. The officials reported back to the War Office and since they decided the fifth flight was the official demonstration, the decision was made that airplanes had no place in national defense. 

One of McCurdy’s accomplishments was establishing the only flying school in Canada.

According to the book, “The Silver Dart” by H. Gordon Green, he established the school and managed it all without the subsidy of the Canadian government.

The students paid their own way at $400 and provided their own room and board. Since this was the only aviation school in Canada, doesn’t it seem a sure bet that our own Ironton resident and WWI Ace, Capt. Bill Lambert, learned to fly in McCurdy’s school?

It is noted in Lambert’s book, and in my conversations with him, he did go to Canada to learn to fly. Perhaps McCurdy was his instructor.

Most of the graduates from the school went over to England to fly for the Royal Flying Corps, including Lambert. The school had a spotless record with no student pilot getting killed or seriously injured. 

McCurdy continued to do flying demonstrations including an attempt to fly across the open water from Key West to Havana, Cuba. The U.S. Navy graciously provide a line of ships along the route in event Doug had to land in the water. He was doing very well and had Cuba in sight when a bearing went out in the engine and he landed on the water close to a ship. He claims that they rescued him and he didn’t even get his feet wet.

Unfortunately, the Navy was not used to handling fragile machines, the plane was badly damaged in hauling it abroad.

They sailed on to Cuba and McCurdy had thoughtfully arranged to have a spare plane sent there. He was greeted as a hero and made many demonstration flights in Cuba.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at eelnod22@gmail.com