This article was written from author (and Air Canada veteran) Ross Smyth's talk in the late 1990s to the Regina chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.
One day in 1930 found Erroll Boyd counting on some students from McGill University to smuggle him out of a Montreal hotel, so broke was he.
Scarcely a month later, Boyd was one of the most famous men in Canada.
What had happened in between was this: a flight across the North Atlantic ocean by Boyd and his friend Harry Connor. Not only was it the first flight by a Canadian across the Atlantic; it was done outside of summer, when the best weather occurred. Moreover, the men’s' aircraft, a Bellanca monoplane, had flown the Atlantic once before: a mere two weeks after Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in a Ryan NYP monoplane. For its previous trip across the ocean, the Bellanca's controls had been handled by veteran aviator Clarence Chamberlain, with millionaire Charlie Levine as his passenger.
This was the story laid out Nov. 13 to the Roland Groome Chapter of the CAHS by Ross Smyth, president of the Montreal CAHS chapter and also the author of a recent biography of Boyd. ""It's not only the story of Erroll Boyd, but also of the "golden age' of aviation, which required a good deal of courage and bravery,'' said Ross, a retired Air Canada public relations executive.
Boyd was born into an upper middle-class family in Toronto in 1891 and lived in several places, including Saskatoon (where he sold motor cars, built model cars and aircraft, and played rugby) in 1912-13. Possessed of a daring nature, he flew over Toronto as a passenger of the pioneering American aviator Lincoln Beachey in 1913. When the First World War broke out, he joined the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, quickly getting leave to apply to the new Royal Flying Corps in Britain. There, he was ruled out: he was color blind.
Undaunted, he applied to the Royal Naval Air Service -- and was accepted. An interesting historical note: his first RNAS instructor was John Alcock, later famous as one of the first two men to fly over the Atlantic in 1919.
Ross said Boyd's first training aircraft overseas was akin to a Wright biplane, and he soloed in a Short Pusher, the same type in which Winston Churchill took a few flying lessons when he set up the RNAS in 1912. One of Boyd's first assignments was hunting Zeppelins over Britain -- though no guns were used. ""Fighters at night tried to get atop of them and drop bombs on the airships,'' Ross said.
From these duties, Boyd was posted to Dunkirk in northern France, from which his unit did bombing raids of German facilities in occupied Belgium. On one, his French-built Parasol aircraft were hit. It went out of control and crash-landed just over the border of the Netherlands, then officially neutral. The terms of his captivity were highly liberal. He was allowed to wander into The Hague and even went skating with the future Queen Juliana. Not once, but twice during the war did he cross the Atlantic ""on parole'' to neutral America, getting married during one of these trips to a Broadway singer. ""They even got a present from Al Jolson!'' Ross said. He test flew Curtiss Jennies and a little-known all-metal airplane on Long Island and even wrote a hit Broadway songs.
Postwar, Boyd sold cars, in Toronto, ran a hotel in New York, wrote another hit song and even turned to sky-writing. In Detroit, he was manager of a marmalade company and the private pilot for auto tycoon John Dodge. Boyd flew for Canadian Trans-Continental Airways, meeting ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and taking mail back to Montreal. He then got a job with what was to become Mexicana Airlines, flying a Fairchild 24 for about a year in inhospitable conditions that he credited with boosting his piloting skill. It is intriguing to wonder what would have become of Boyd had he remained there, for the new Pan-American Airways was then flexing its muscles in that area and might have hired such an experienced airman.
Instead, Boyd returned to the U.S., acting as operations manager for a Coastal Airways, a small airline operating near New York. The firm sustained three or four accidents, but Boyd was cleared. An odd historical note: Ross could find no record that Boyd had a Canadian pilot's licence -- though he held one granted in 1915 by the Royal Aeronautical Society in Britain and, presumably, usable in any part of the Empire.
Ross noted that Lindbergh was by no means the first person to cross the Atlantic by air. More than 70 people had done it before him, most in airships. Lindbergh was the first to fly it alone.
Boyd got the idea of flying from North America to Moscow, but his then-employer declined to sponsor him. Eventually, the aircraft he'd planned to use went to another aviator who flew it south -- and disappeared somewhere in Venezuela.
For his attempt at crossing the Atlantic, Boyd received permission to borrow Levine's Bellanca. The expedition, desperately short of money, started from Toronto's Leaside aerodrome in September 1929, with Boyd's young daughter telling a waiting newsman: ""My Dad is a good pilot. He won't fall out of the airplane!''
There was a mix-up with the Bellanca: another pilot had registered a lien against it because he maintained Levine owed him money. Legally, the RCMP had to seize it when Boyd landed at Montreal's St. Hubert field. A friendly Montreal lawyer got the lien lifted and Boyd's old friend, U.S. Navy navigation specialist Harry Connor showed up with a brand new artificial horizon. The high-spirited Connor went to Boyd's hotel, bought himself a new set of clothes at its haberdasher's shop -- and blithely asked for the bill to be sent to Boyd's room. This posed more than a small problem: Boyd was so broke he couldn't pay for his room, much less Connor's clothes! ""Boyd was in an old, creased suit. He wouldn't even send it to the cleaners because he didn't have enough money,'' Ross said.
Finally, some high-spirited McGill University students appeared, helped Boyd and Connor to, sneak out of the hotel without paying and took them to the St. Hubert airport.
The men's first destination was Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. This was weathered in, so they set down in rural Prince Edward Island, staying there a full week before pressing on to ""the Rock''. Winds there were initially from the east -- precisely what they didn't want, so they waited some more. Two weeks passed while they went through weather reports from Toronto, New York and ships at sea. On Oct. 9, the weather finally looked good.
The duo made preparation to take off that afternoon. Alas, so heavily loaded was the little Bellanca that it wouldn't move; onlookers had to be drafted to push it. But off it finally rolled, faster and faster, passing the point where the rival aircraft "'The City of New York'' had crashed. Its tale rose and the Bellanca headed into the sky.
Dark skies and bad weather were their companions. The flight was very rough and Connor could not get any starshots through the overcast. And when four or five hours from Europe, they found they could not pump fuel from their main auxiliary tank. (Later, analysis would show that a chemical reaction had clogged the fuel lines). The two men considered of ditching if they saw a ship, but they gamely pressed on, finally spotting the southwest tip of England. It was the Scilly Isles, and Boyd took the aircraft to a landing on a beach, rolling only 200 feet before the lightened Bellanca stopped. They were the guests of the excited islanders.
The RAF eventually brought them gas and the two landed at Croydon, then London's airport, the next day.
"There was no other flight that had flown that late successfully,'' Ross told the meeting. "Many had set out -- but they disappeared.''
The arrival of Boyd and Connor was overshadowed by grim news: the British airship R-101 had crashed in France with great loss of life. But the due was well entertained and eventually left in the Bellanca for a tour of Germany and the Netherlands, from which they soon returned, ""knocked down'' the aircraft for shipment across the Atlantic and returned.
A pair of aviation deadbeats only a little while earlier, they now returned to exuberant welcomes in Montreal (where their hotel bill was covered!) and Toronto. In later year, Boyd flew to Haiti and even planned a flight around the world, though backers did not appear. Instead, American flyer Wiley Post nabbed that distinction. Boyd came back to Toronto in 1937 and signed on as aviation editor of the Toronto Star Weekly. Ross estimates, incidentally, that Boyd's written predictions about the future of aviation hold up very well. He sought, for example, a "peace air force'' that would be the air arm for the League of Nations -- a prophecy that is being advanced only now as national air arms assist the UN. "He did a lot better than the politicians of the day and some of the aviation companies," said Ross. "He was a man of great vision.''
An interesting historical sidelight: Smyth actually got to know Boyd in the late 1930s, when Boyd and fellow aviator Duke Schiller set up the "Aviation Scouts of Canada'', best be thought of as boy scouts with an aviation orientation or a predecessor of the Air Cadets. Boyd even took a group of them on a field trip to Miami in 1938. At Buffalo's airport, "we got in an airplane...we'd never seen anything so big. It was a DC-3,'' Ross chuckled, adding that a stay in New York let them tour the Seversky (later Republic) factory and meet famous aviator Douglas "Wrong-Way'' Corrigan, who had just received a ticker-tape parade after ending up in Ireland while supposedly trying for California.) Boyd interviewed Corrigan for The Toronto Star and made the observation that if Corrigan's compass was really out by 180 degrees (as Corrigan claimed) then Corrigan should have been bound for Mexico, not California. "Corrigan said, with a twinkle in his eye, 'Not with my compass!'
"Then we flew into Miami and saw all the Clipper ships and that landing.'' said Ross, who added: "When you're young, you're sort of stupid. I should have maintained my links with him.''
Even with war clouds gathering, Boyd was unable to get a job in aviation in Canada. So once more, he moved to the U.S., joining the little-known Clayton Knight committee, which quietly recruited American airmen to help the Allied effort against Germany in the years before the U.S. entered the Second World War; Boyd's job included setting up offices across the U.S. Because of American neutrality laws, ""this was an illegal committee even though FDR thought it was OK. Lindbergh, of course, was opposed to the war. There has been very little written about this,'' Ross said.
Boyd, who by this time had taken out American citizenship, later got a job with New Orleans' Higgins Industries, which became famous for building torpedo boats and landing craft. It also wanted to get into the aviation industry, having landing an order to build 1,200 Curtiss C-46 Commando transports. The experiment was less than successful; Higgins built only two aircraft by. Boyd eventually retired to Florida, where he died in 1960. Said Ross: "I think he was an outstanding Canadian and had an outstanding personality -- a loveable man!'' A follow-up to last month's speaker, Ross Smyth, author of the book Canada's Lindbergh, the Erroll Boyd story: Although Ross sold many copies of his book after our CAHS meeting, he decided to lighten his load back home by leaving the seven unsold copies with Will Chabun. If you want a copy (it costs $19.95 plus $1.40 GST equals $21.35) call Will at 586-7091. Incidentally, Ross (he's a long-time Air Canada employee, having joined its predecessor, TCA, back in 1941) is now gathering information for an article on TCA's trans-Atlantic operations using Lancastrians, or specially modified Lancasters.