First Flight in the British Empire (1909)


Graham Bell and the Silver Dart

The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, was a driving force behind the first powered flight of a heavier-than-air plane in the British Commonwealth, as he was one of the founding members of the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), a group of flight enthusiasts devoted to creating a viable aircraft. Founded on 30 October 1907 on Mrs. Mabel Bell’s suggestion, AEA’s membership consisted of 2 Canadians, Frederick William “Casey” Baldwin and John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, and 3 Americans, Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge (an official observer from the U.S. government), Glenn Hammond Curtiss and Alexander Graham Bell (who became a naturalized American citizen in 1882). Bell’s spouse, Mrs. Mabel Bell, contributed money to pay for most of the expenses; the AEA was headed by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Curtiss was recognized as an expert on gasoline engines. From 1891, Bell had begun experiments at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada and Hammondsport, NY, USA (where the facilities were supplied by Curtiss) to develop a motor-powered heavier-than-air aircraft.


The first experiments of the AEA were with man-lifting tetrahedral kites flown from 1907. But their work progressed rapidly towards heavier-than-air machines. The first aircraft was designed by Thomas Selfridge and called the Aerodrome No. 1 Red Wing, named for the bright red colour of its silk wings. Baldwin became the first Canadian and first British subject to pilot this aircraft, at Hammondsport on 12 March 1908. The machine was damaged at the end of the next flight on 17 March 1908, 20 seconds after take-off.


Designed by Baldwin, its successor was the Aerodrome No. 2 White Wing and incorporated two significant aeronautical inventions. It was the first heavier-than-air machine in North America to have ailerons, which are movable control panels located at the tip of each wing and controlled by a harness; it also had a three-wheeled landing system for taking off and landing from a grassy field. First piloted by Baldwin on 18 May 1908, White Wing was piloted by Selfridge on 19 May 1908 at Hammondsport thus becoming the first US Army Officer to fly an airplane. Note that Lieutenant Selfridge was killed on 17 September 1909 while flying with Orville Wright, thus becoming the first airplane passenger fatality.


June Bug

The following design by Curtiss was the Aerodrome No. 3 June Bug, because it resembled the flying beetle of the same name. Curtiss flew it successfully on three out of four times on 21 June 1908. On 4 July 1908, Curtiss won the Scientific American Trophy on by making the first official flight of more than one kilometer in a straight line in North America, although the Wright Brothers had already accomplished this in 1904; the June Bug’s flight was officially witnessed by the Aeroclub of America, the press and many others.


McCurdy’s Silver Dart.

The fourth aircraft of the AEA, the Aerodrome No. 4 Silver Dart biplane, was designed by Douglas McCurdy and constructed in 1908. After many successful flights at Hammondsport, NY, USA, it was dismantled and shipped to Baddeck. It was flown by McCurdy on 23 February 1909, taking-off from the ice of the Bras d’Or Lake, near Baddeck, thus making it the first controlled powered flight in Canada (and British Empire). The wings of the Silver Dart were covered with rubberized silvery balloon cloth, hence the name of Silver Dart. It flew only half a mile, but other records were soon to fall, like the first passenger flight in Canada on 2 August 1909. Douglas McCurdy’s historic flight aboard the Silver Dart was the start of a long career in aviation. The 2009 stamp at the right side commemorates the 100th anniversary of flight in Canada by depicting the delicate open-air plane made from cloth, sticks and bamboo flying off the ice of Bras d’Or Lake in Baddeck with four people waving at the pilot.


On 27 July 2009, the Sydney Airport in Nova Scotia, Canada was renamed after John Alexander Douglas McCurdy. McCurdy was the holder of Canada's first pilot's licence in 1910; he established the first aviation school in Canada in 1915.


The Silver Dart was the last and best of the airplanes constructed by the AEA, which was disbanded on 31 March 1909. Curtiss went on to form his own companies and later designed the famous Jenny JN-4D as having made the greatest overall contribution to early aviation.


Samuel Cody's biplane.

Prominent showman and aviation pioneer, American-born Samuel Franklin Cody (1867-1913) moved to Europe in 1888. Cody first began experimenting with man-lifting kites and by 1901, he had offered his inventions to the British War Office. As the British Army decided to back the development of his powered aeroplane, Cody started work on his British Army Aeroplane No. 1 and made a few brief hops at the controls of this aircraft in September and October 1908. Eighteen weeks before the flight by McCurdy, on 16 October 1908, Cody made a flight of 424 metres over Laffin’s Plain, Farnborough, England, which is recognized by the Royal Aero Club as the first powered flight in England (but not in the British Empire, because the British Empire consisted of territories other than the United Kingdom). The flight ended somewhat abruptly in a crash. This first flight ensured Farnborough a place in history as the birthplace of British Aviation.


First Day Cover commemorating the 50th anniversary of McCurdy’s first powered flight in the British Empire.


Monument commemorating the flight of the Silver Dart biplane in the

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Park, at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada.