The Man Who Jumped into History

  • Image of West Wind airplane, built by William Blakely and Frank Ellis, c 1913.

    Fall, 2007, Altitude
    by Laird Rankin

    Frank Henry Ellis would have been an ideal contestant on CBC Television’s Front Page Challenge or a rich subject for Monty Hall’s radio quiz program Who Am I? Why? Ellis almost defies categorization. There is just so much to the man.

    Best-known, respected and honoured for his considerable and authoritative contributions to Canada’s aviation history through his prolific writings on the subject, Ellis was, by no means, just a chronicler. While his book Canada’s Flying Heritage (1954; revised and reprinted, 1961) remains the gold standard on the subject, there is another Frank Ellis that perhaps few people know. At various stages in his 86 years, he could legitimately have claimed to be: a model airplane builder, an airplane builder, a self-taught pilot, a mechanic, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a records clerk with the City of Toronto, a parachutist, a barnstormer, a photographer and cartoonist, a bus driver with the West Vancouver Municipal Transit System, a poet, journalist and author. He was also a certifiable packrat.

    Ellis was a native of Nottingham, England having been born there in 1893. Twenty-one years later, he and his mother immigrated to Alberta where they purchased a farm near Stanmore. Ellis’s areas of interest, however, were aerial not agrarian. He was already keen on aviation – a love affair that manifested itself initially through model-plane building in his early teens: in 1913, he won a prize for his model of a Blériot monoplane. Modeling became a life-long hobby. This not only produced a number of finished products (the Aviation Museum has two of them), awards and honours, but it lead to the publication of Duration Flying Models (1936), a book for boys on the subject.

    Well-known milestones in his career: the building of the West Wind, a Curtiss-type bi-plane, near Calgary (1914); the first Canadian to jump from a plane wearing a parachute at Crystal Beach, Ontario (1919); a mechanic with the Canadian Aircraft Company, Winnipeg and on flights (1920) that marked the first time an aircraft had been used to cover a news event in Canada, and on the first flight to The Pas, Manitoba from which he took the first aerial shot of Canada north of the 53rd parallel.

    Ellis retired from active flying in 1923 and moved to British Columbia where he married Elsie Harrison in 1934. It was here, in West Vancouver, where Ellis began his formal research into Canadian aviation history in the early 1940s with Elsie serving as his secretary and research assistant. His approach was thorough and comprehensive and, among other strategies, involved writing to over 6,000 individuals in Canada, the United States and Europe for information, recollections, photographs or whatever else they might have to illuminate and flesh out the subject.

    In the process, Ellis not only made a huge contribution to Canada’s aviation past, but he amassed an even bigger collection of material, all of which he donated to the Aviation Museum in July 1979. Gordon Emberley, one of the Aviation Museum’s founding members and its first Executive Director, facilitated the gift and its transfer.

    “It arrived in three or five plastic garbage bags”, said Loraine Joiner, a long-time volunteer in the Museum’s Archives. It was left to the Museum staff and volunteers to make some sense of the jumble, to sort it out, organize and catalogue it in proper fashion. Today, the Ellis Collection occupies some 60 regulation-size, blue filing boxes, plus a couple of oversized boxes for oversized material, and commands approximately 34 metres of space. “It is one of the Museum’s largest collections.”

    As such, it seems fitting that it came from the Museum’s first member. And it seems ironic and unfortunate that Ellis died July 4, 1979, one day short of the 60th anniversary of his ‘jump into history’ at Crystal Beach.

    The Ellis Collection

    The Ellis Collection documents Frank Ellis’s activities and achievements as an aviation historian of Canada’s early flying history – his aircraft modeling hobby, his personal membership affiliations with many aviation clubs and writers’ associations, his many guest appearances, his literary pursuits in creative writing, the development of his ideas, games and inventions and artistic production of same, and aspects of his personal life and experiences. The collection mainly consists of correspondence, author’s drafts, unpublished manuscripts (e.g., Signs are for Squares), speeches, lecture notes, autobiographies and interviews, photographs, negatives and slides, cartoons, clippings, ephemera, publications, sounds recordings, and various artifacts of his inventions, awards and modeling. The collections has been organized into six parts: writing activities; aircraft modeling activities; personal membership affiliations; ideas and inventions; private papers; and memorabilia.

    This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2007 edition of Altitude magazine.

Leave a Reply

* Name, Email, and Comment are Required