The Aerial Experiment Association

Silver Dart in flight near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, 1909. © Library and Archives Canada / PA-061741
J. A. D. McCurdy sitting in a Curtiss biplane at Daytona Beach, Florida, March 28, 1911. © Nova Scotia Archives, J. A. D. McCurdy 2007-058 vol. 003 no. 14

For the week of February 17, 2020.

On February 23, 1909, J. A. D. McCurdy flew the Silver Dart over the frozen Bras D’Or Lake in Nova Scotia, making the first powered, controlled flight in Canadian history. The flight was one in a series of experiments undertaken by the Aerial Experiment Association on the estate of Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell, known as Beinn Bhreagh (“Beautiful Mountain”).

Since the 1890s, Alexander Graham Bell had been conducting kite-flying tests from his estate near Baddeck. At the invitation of Mabel Hubbard Bell, J. A. D. McCurdy, a family friend, and his engineering classmate Frederick “Casey” Baldwin came to Beinn Bhreagh in 1906 to assist in the experimentation. They were joined in 1907 by US Army Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge and fellow American engine manufacturer, Glenn Curtiss. In the autumn of 1907, these five men formed the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), financed by Mabel Bell.

The AEA learned about flight by experimenting with tetrahedral kites fixed with an engine. They then moved on to aircraft, constructing Red Wing, a biplane with an engine supplied by Curtiss. Baldwin became the first Canadian to pilot an airplane when, in March 1908, he flew Red Wing near Curtiss’ home in Hammondsport, New York. It was a short flight that ended in a crash landing. Baldwin survived, and the AEA improved on the design to build three more airplanes. The new airplanes were the first in North America to use ailerons, moveable surfaces at the wingtips which helped pilots keep the wings steady and level, and were necessary to make safe, controlled turns. They also had wheeled landing gear at a time when most airplanes in North America used skids. These advances made it possible for the AEA to make the first recorded public flight of 1 kilometre on July 4, 1908, in the airplane called June Bug.

The AEA built and tested their final aircraft, Silver Dart, in Hammondsport before shipping it to Nova Scotia, where they towed it onto the icy surface of Bras d’Or Lake. McCurdy took off and flew nearly a kilometre before landing, thus making the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft in Canada. McCurdy went on to make more flights, some reaching 13 kilometres in length. The AEA disbanded in late March 1909, after having successfully built several airplanes.

John A.D. McCurdy, Frederick Walker “Casey” Baldwin, and Mabel Hubbard Bell are designated national historic persons, the First Aeroplane Flying in Canada is a designated national historic event, and both Beinn Bhreagh and the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, are designated national historic sites.

2019 marks 100 years since the founding of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). Find out more on the HSMBC website.