Article: Flying More Than Showing Off

  • Eugene Ely over Winnipeg, c 1910

    Altitude, Summer, 2010
    by Ed Unrau

    It took centuries for mankind to figure out how to fly like the birds. But once the aviation dreamers and inventors figured out how to fly consistently and reliably, it did not take long before aircraft were put to work.

    Until World War One the air industry – if indeed it could be called that – consisted mainly of showing off. Aircraft moved around the country to demonstrations and contests that, for the most part, reinforced the notion that flying was possible. Contests and competitions were set up to see who could fly the highest, fastest, furthest or be first at something. Eugene Ely’s career is an example. Ely, who went down in history as the first to fly an aircraft in Manitoba, brought his aircraft to Winnipeg in 1910 for a demonstration. After Winnipeg, he joined the Glenn Curtiss exhibition group and travelled throughout the U.S. giving flight demonstrations. The net effect of all of this showing off saw aviation develop from an object of curiosity into something that had potential practical applications.

    Eugene Ely made the first heavier-than-air flight in Manitoba on July 15, 1910. Spectators came on foot, in wagons, carriages and buggies, on bicycles, on horseback and in a few sputtering automobiles. The biplane gathered speed and ascended above their heads. By the end of the day, they not only witnessed Manitoba’s first airplane flight but also the province’s first air crash when pilot Ely’s third flight ended in disaster.

    In the years before the First World War, there is evidence that the military was eyeing the technology for combat applications. During the American Civil War, hot air balloons were used for observation and artillery direction, so the tactical importance of rising above the battlefield to look around was already understood. As early as 1910, the U.S. navy looked at aviation applications. About four months after his Winnipeg demonstration, Ely was the first pilot to take off from the deck of a ship, an event that took place at Hampton Roads, Virginia in November. Two months later he took off from, and landed on, a U.S. navy ship in San Francisco. The point of these two demonstrations was to show that airplanes could operate from ships at sea.

    “Aircraft found their first practical use as instruments of war,” writes R.G. Grant in Flight: The Complete History, a 2002 book published by the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Over the four years of war, 1914-18, he writes, “… aviation matured under the stress of combat. For the first time, aircraft were operated on a daily basis, with all that implies of regular servicing and a focus on reliability. More powerful engines and sturdier airframes brought a great leap forward in overall performance. There was also a change of scale: aircraft had been manufactured in hundreds before the war; now they were produced in thousands. Militarily, the Great War saw the identification of the different roles aircraft could perform and the design of specialized aircraft to fulfill them.”

    Airplanes made their war debut in reconnaissance, with the pilot taking another soldier aloft as an observer. There are numerous WWI examples illustrating the difference aerial surveillance made in the outcome of battles. But these early military pilots were not content to be merely observers and wanted to “have a go” at the enemy themselves. So arming aircraft occurred quickly. The first recorded air combat victory was credited to a French pilot and observer flying a Voisin 8 pusher aircraft in October, 1915.

    The use of aircraft to drop bombs is believed to have begun in 1914 when a German pilot dropped a single bomb near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Bombers, to be effective instruments of war, needed to be robust enough to carry explosives big enough to inflict damage; this necessity led to the development of large, multi-engined aircraft.

    The Great War ended in late 1918 and the developments in military aviation quickly fuelled civil aviation. R.G. Grant in his history of flight observes that, “defying the postwar recession and the Great Depression that followed, the 1920s and 1930s blossomed into a ‘Golden Age’ of aviation. Pilots were among the most celebrated heroes of the day, and the public thrilled to the excitement of air races and the feats of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Helped by pioneering long-distance survey flights, airlines began to stretch their networks across and between continents. Great airships brought unparalleled luxury to air travel, challenged only by the stately flying boats. The advent of sleek, all-metal monoplanes led to radical advances in speed and range, while improved flight instruments and navigation devices made aircraft increasingly safe to fly.”

    In Canada, the application of aviation to practical uses is illustrated by looking at the “firsts” recorded in the 1983 book published by the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, 125 years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology 1840-1965.

    The entries in the volume for the first four years after the 1909 flight at Baddeck indicate that aviation activity in Canada consisted mainly of proving that aircraft could fly and so many of the “first” entries record demonstration flights and exhibitions of the “show-off” variety.

    The first description in 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics of an aircraft doing anything “useful” is the October 8, 1913, flight of William Curtis Robinson in a Vought/Lillie tractor biplane powered by a 50 hp Gnome motor. The event is described as “the first commercial inter-city and first inter-provincial flight in Canada.” The flight carried copies of the Montreal Daily Mail newspaper from Snowdon Junction, near Montreal, to Slattery’s Field near Ottawa, with five stops along the way. Robinson crashed taking off the next day, ending the first commercial aviation venture.

    The first Canadian air mail flight is credited to Capt. Brian Peck and Cpl. E.W. Mathers who flew from Montreal to Toronto in a Curtiss JN-4 in June, 1918. In August of the same year there is a record of four round-trip air mail flights between Toronto and Ottawa, also in a Curtiss JN-4. The first international air mail to leave Canada is said to have occurred in March, 1919, between Vancouver and Seattle.

    The first commercial flight from Canada to the U.S. happened on May 5 and 6, 1919 when a Curtiss JN-4 transported 150 pounds of fur to Elizabeth, New Jersey, via the Thousand Islands and Watertown, New York.

    The first forest fire spotted from the air was on July 7, 1919. The location of the sighting is not recorded in 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics. One of the first documented cases of aircraft being used in forest fire control was in the summer of 1921 when a pilot spotted a fire on an island near Sioux Lookout, Ontario. He returned to base and picked up a ranger with the necessary fire-fighting tools and returned to the island; the fire was extinguished before it got out of control. The concept of aerial fire suppression – water bombing – emerged in the late 1950s with the advent of sturdy airframes.

    Two Canadian firsts were recorded in August, 1919. The first aerial survey in Canada occurred that month when a timber survey was carried out in Labrador by Owens Expedition. The use of a radio-equipped Curtiss JN-4 was also the first known use in Canada of radio in a civil aircraft.

    On August 30, 1919, W.R. (Wop) May, fighter ace and bush pilot, flew a police officer from Edmonton to Coalbranch, Alberta, in pursuit of a murder suspect. This flight of a Curtiss JN-4 is the first reported use of an aircraft in support of a police investigation.

    The role aircraft played in geological exploration and mining should not be underestimated. Where it once took days of arduous travel along inland waterways, floatplanes and flying boats covered the same ground in hours. The first Canadian mining claim to be staked with the use of aircraft was recorded in July, 1920.

    Also in 1920, the Air Force photographed Ottawa and compiled a mosaic map in what is believed to be the first serious aerial photographic survey in Canada.

    The first air ambulance flight was recorded on August 9, 1920, when a soldier was moved in a 45-minute flight from Camp Borden to Toronto for the treatment of “old war wounds.” The first air ambulance flight in northern Canada occurred August 28 with a flight from Moose Factory to Cochrane, Ontario.

    The year 1920 also saw the first use of an airplane by a Canadian newspaper in pursuit of a story; this event involved the Winnipeg Free Press chartering an Avro biplane for a flight to Winkler so a reporter could cover a crime.

    The first Canadian scheduled air passenger and freight service is credited to Laurentide Air Service Ltd., which set up the service in the gold mining region of northern Quebec. The firm is also on record as beginning the first regular air mail service in Canada, also serving the same area.

    The earliest record of a major airfreight mission was the movement of approximately nine tons of material from Cache Lake to Churchill, Manitoba, in the spring of 1927.

    The first use of an aircraft to apply a chemical to control a forest disease was recorded during the summer of 1927 on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The earliest use of agricultural crop dusting also occurred in 1927.

    Although this list of “firsts” in Canadian civil aviation ignores developments in the U.S., the examples nevertheless indicate that most of the practical applications for aircraft emerged within the first 15 years, or so, of the first aircraft flight in 1909. By the time the Second World War started, aviation was a well-established industry.

    Eugene Ely over Winnipeg, c 1910

    • Fuller, G.A, Griffin, J.A., Molson, K.M.: 125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics: A Chronology 1840-1965; Canadian Aviation historical Society, 1983.
    • Grant R.G.; Flight: The Complete History; Smithsonian Institution, DK Publishing, New York, 2002.
    • Ellis, Frank H.; Canada’s Flying Heritage; University of Toronto Press, 1954.
    • Payne, Stephen; Canadian Wings: A Remarkable Century of Flight; Canadian Aviation Museum, Ottawa, Douglas and McIntyre publishers, 2006.
    This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2010 edition of Altitude magazine.

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