Monday, March 27, 2017

Part 2: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

The International Polar Year, the Silver Dart, Canada's First Air Show and Aerospace Becomes Serious Business

         By Robert Godwin
A.G. Bell. Photo c/o NNDB.
Canada's aerospace raison d'être has always derived from its immense size, its location in the far north as a vast, barely-tracked wilderness of incalculable resources and the logical requirements relating to defence, communications, utilization and exploration which naturally follow from its size and location. 
It's also worth noting that the beginnings of Canada's aerospace history predates Canada itself...
A quarter of a century after the first International Polar Year the world changed irrevocably when two bicycle-shop mechanics in Dayton Ohio led our civilization into the era of powered, winged flight.

People around the world became entranced by the adventure and potential of aviation, and Alexander Graham Bell, yet another immigrant from Scotland and one of Canada's most illustrious citizens, was willing to put up the money from his substantial fortune to help pave the way for Canadians into this new realm.

Bell joined forces with one of America's leading proponents of mechanical flight, Glenn Curtiss, and they created The Aerial Experiment Association. They brought into their group two young men named F.W. "Casey" Baldwin and John A.D. McCurdy who were both graduates of the University of Toronto. These pioneers shuttled back and forth between Hammondsport New York, and Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia testing their designs until, on February 23rd 1909, McCurdy became the first citizen of the globe-girdling British Empire to really fly an aircraft over a significant distance.

The Aerial Experiment Association drome No. 4, also known as "McCurdy’s Silver Dart" at Baddeck Bay N.S around February, 1909. Photo c/o the Canada at War blog.

Bell sent a telegram to the newspapers that simply read, "Baddeck: Feb 24. McCurdy flew Silver Dart one mile and a half in great style. Signed, Graham Bell." The very next day McCurdy made the first winged aerial exploration of Canadian territory when he circumnavigated the small lake.

A little more than a year later, 3500 Canadians in British Columbia were thrilled to experience aviation first-hand, when Charles Hamilton became the first person to fly an aircraft on the west coast of Canada at Minoru Park.  Perhaps inspired by Hamilton's feat, just a few weeks after that, a local inventor by the name of Haden Bales filed a patent for what would be the first design for so-called Jet Assisted Take Off. Bales quite rightly anticipated the efficacy of placing rockets underneath an aircraft to help it take-off over a shorter distance. With very little fanfare, Bales had patented the first rocket plane.

Less than a month later Canada hosted its first "air show" in Montreal where the Count de Lesseps demonstrated the first flight of a monoplane in front of a Canadian audience. At the end of his trip he was appointed as an honorary Grand Chief by the Iroquois contingent in attendance.

Aviation quickly changed from fad to serious business when the British Empire went to war with Germany. On February 7th 1915 the Canadian government was asked to enlist pilots. The young volunteers were so enthusiastic that they barely complained when they were told they had to pay for their own flying licenses.

Photo inscribed as "Blakemore/71 King W./Toronto./#989/Curtiss Flying School-Class of July 1916-Toronto," along with the names of the people in the photo. Photo c/o the Baldwin Collection of Canadiana.

Glenn Curtiss established a training school at Long Branch on the waters of Lake Ontario on May 10th 1915, and by 1917 young Canadians were being trained there, before being sent to fight over the skies of Europe. Even enthusiastic Americans who wanted to get into the fight came to Long Branch and joined His Majesty's Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) or Royal Flying Corps (RFC).

Initially this first batch of young pilots would be trained by John McCurdy. One young American who would spend time during the war watching these pilots train in Toronto was a teenage nurse from Kansas named Amelia Earhart.

As the war came to an end the Royal Air Force (RAF) was founded by merging the RNAS and RFC. Two months later uniquely Canadian squadrons were formed and in February 1920 the Canadian Air Force was authorized.

When those young Canadian pilots had arrived in England during the war they had often found themselves flying in aircraft which had been built under the supervision of a young designer named Geoffrey de Havilland. At the end of the war de Havilland began his own aircraft company based around his designs for a family of planes called "Moths."

By 1927 de Havilland had done well enough that he announced his intention to build aircraft in Canada. He opened a factory in Downsview Ontario and construction soon began there on the legendary Tiger Moth biplane.

Not so different from today. A 1927 European ad for the de Havilland "Moth" biplane stressing its ease of use, gas millage and the faults of the competition. Graphic c/o Aviation Ancestry.

In 1901 Guglielmo Marconi had conducted the first radio transmission across the Atlantic when he received a message in Newfoundland from Ireland. For more than 30 years his technology had been refined and improved, but like the cables laid by Lord Kelvin it was still subject to the whims of solar interference.

While the industrial side of Canada's aerospace industry was just starting to flourish, the science side once more turned its attention to the arctic, and in 1932, on the fiftieth anniversary of that first International Polar Year, a crew of atmospheric scientists led by Balfour Currie was dispatched to the Northwest Territories to once more study the Earth and to try and get a better understanding of the aurora and its impact on our planet, and most importantly – why they seemed to interfere with communications.

At this point, the science of liquid rocketry was still in its infancy. The American Robert Goddard had fired the world's first liquid fuelled rocket in 1926. In the spring of 1930, the Austrian pioneer Max Valier had driven the world's first liquid rocket propelled vehicle; a custom built automobile.

Daredevils around the world were intrigued with the potential of this new form of propulsion and the excitement caught the attention of two Canadians – Laurence E. Manning of New Brunswick, and Kurt R. Stehling of Toronto.

Manning had fought for Canada in the First World War and was now living in the United States. In April 1930 he was invited to attend a gathering of like-minds at an apartment in New York City. As one of a dozen people in attendance that night, Manning became a founder of what was to become the American Interplanetary Society and in 1934 he was responsible for the first truly successful launch of a liquid fueled rocket by that organisation.

Manning would go on to become the society's president and would be in that position when the name was changed to the American Rocket Society (ARS). That organisation still exists today under the auspices of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and is still the leading group in the field representing the United States internationally.

Manning was also a writer of science fiction and his stories had inspired Kurt Stehling who at that time was a student at Toronto's Technical High School. Around the same time that Manning was flying his relatively sophisticated rocket in New York, Stehling built what may well have been Canada's first liquid fuelled rocket in his school's biology laboratory.

Stehling's launch was somewhat less glorious than Manning's when his rocket chose to leave the laboratory through the window – while it was closed. Despite this minor setback he managed to get accepted to the University of Toronto's engineering program where he stayed until 1943, at which time he signed up to fight in Europe. He was dispatched to Holland and England where he would come under fire of the infamous V-2 missile. 
Robert Godwin.

Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books. the Space Curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum and an American Astronautical Society History Committee Member.
He has written or edited over 100 books including the award winning series "The NASA Mission Reports" and appeared on dozens of radio and television programs in Canada, the USA and England as an expert not only on space exploration but also on music.  
His books have been discussed on CNN, the CBC, the BBC and CBS 60 Minutes. He produced the first ever virtual reality panoramas of the Apollo lunar surface photography and the first multi-camera angle movie of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. His latest book was written with the late Frederick I Ordway III and is called "2001 The Heritage and Legacy of the Space Odyssey" about the history of spaceflight at the movies.
Last Week, "Before Canada: HMS Agamemnon, the Telegraph Cable, William Leitch & 'The Fur Country,'" in part one of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History."

Next Week, "Rockets, Mosquitoes, Lancaster's, UTIAS, and the Cold War," in part three as "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" continues.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.

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