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 Monday, March 1, 2021.

On March 7, 1902, Alexander Graham Bell placed an order for a hundred strong, slim frames “for the support of an aeroplane.” His fascination with flight led him to help found the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), which made the first powered, controlled flight in Canadian history in 1909. 

Since the 1890s, Alexander Graham Bell had been conducting kite-flying tests from his estate on Cape Breton Island, known as Beinn Bhreagh (“Beautiful Mountain”). At the invitation of Mabel Hubbard Bell, J. A. D. McCurdy, a family friend, and his engineering classmate Frederick “Casey” Baldwin visited 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 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 that 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 one kilometer 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 frozen Bras d’Or Lake. On February 23, 1909, McCurdy took off and flew nearly a kilometre before landing, thus making the first powered, controlled flight of an aircraft in Canadian history. McCurdy went on to make more flights, some reaching 13 kilometers in length. The AEA disbanded in late March 1909, after having successfully built several airplanes. 

The First Aeroplane Flying in Canada is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhchsmbc/ncp-pcn


May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about Asian Canadian histories by exploring articles in our online archives about the Early Chinese Cemeteries in Victoria, British Columbia, Vietnamese immigration to Canada after 1978, and The Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple.