The conference’s first speaker took us back to the reason for the centennial celebration: the flight in February 1909 of the Aerial Experiment Association’s Silver Dart biplane — and the construction over the last five years of a flying replica of this historic aircraft. Our speaker was Doug Jermyn, president of AEA 2005, the name of which is a tribute to the original AEA or Aerial Experiment Association.
As he explained, the idea of building a replica originated in December 2003. A small group of Canadian aviation enthusiasts who’d journeyed to the U.S. for the centennial of the historic first flight by the Wright brothers stopped on their return at a Tim Hortons in Fort Erie, talked and resolved to build a replica of the first powered aircraft to fly in their country.
Historically, the Silver Dart was the result of a series of ever-more sophisticated design and engineering work done by the Aerial Experiment Association, which consisted of its patron, legendary inventor Alexander Graham Bell; engine designer and manufacturer Glenn Curtiss, engineers J. A. Douglas McCurdy, and Casey Baldwin plus, U.S. Army observer Thomas Selfridge and, as Jermyn noted, a small army of workmen.
The AEA’s first project was an aircraft called the Red Wing (which took its name from the red fabric covering its wings) and, significantly, lacked ailerons. It was followed by the White Wing, and then the June Bug (which had its stabilizer and rudder at the rear of the aircraft.) Said Jermyn: “It flew very well, but when they went to the Silver Dart, they moved the combination elevator and stabilizer up front. That actually had a slight destabilizing effect on the airplane, although it still flew very well.”
Each aircraft incorporated the engineering lessons, and sometimes even the parts, of the preceding craft.
Planning for the replica started in the spring and summer of 2004 and Jermyn (a 36-year employee of Pratt & Whitney Canada as a flight test engineer and then engine development project engineer) was elected as the group’s president the next year. A budget of about $56,000 was set and fund-raising began.
Research was done through a wide variety of sources, including Cape Breton University and the Canada Aviation Museum, where director of operations Marc Ducharme found a set of plans that had been donated by “Doug” McCurdy in 1961. “That answered a lot of questions, but there was a lot of engineering that had to be done, like the brakes and the engine and the pilot’s seat,” Jermyn said.
The first component to be finished was the rudder, which was covered in Ceconite, a nonshrinkable fabric, and had modern carbon fibre pushrods from radio-control aircraft as internal braces. Some purists were aghast by this, but Jermyn reported that Bell’s great-grandson Hugh Muller instead chuckled at this innovative use of modern materials and said “Alexander would be so proud of you!” Hand-planing the wing struts took six months; all were made from Sitka spruce, while the ailerons were made from Douglas fir. The fabric covering the elevator, aileron and rudder was applied by Wayne Cole of Vienna, Ont. – whose fabric shop was later to become important in another way.
Construction of the wings began in early 2006. A particularly dedicated volunteer was Irene Manuel, who began sewing the polyurethane-coated nylon that was to cover the wings. Her work was interrupted by a diagnosis of cancer, but she was so dedicated that she refused to suspend work, instead fitting sewing chores around chemotherapy sessions. “She did an amazing job for us ... and she’s quite recovered now,” Jermyn said.
In June 2008, the aircraft was moved into the hangar of the Russell Aviation Group, located between Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, where the $40,000 Silver Dart “rubbed shoulders” with this collection’s high-powered (and very expensive) Me109, Hurricane and Spitfire. “It was a bit intimidating!” Jermyn said.
For flying, the Silver Dart would use a Lycoming 0-145 engine, but for display purposes, Jermyn and CAHS member Don Feduck went to the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa where they photographed and recorded the dimensions of the actual engine that Glenn Curtiss had built for the Silver Dart. This engine was aquired by the museum after being rescued from the bottom of Bras d’or Lake, where it had been mounted, post-1909, in a boat (which later sank). From this, they constructed a replica. “It’s an amazing piece of machinery,” he said. “Although it doesn’t work, you can rotate the driveshaft and move the distributor. It’s a real jewel.”
By late in 2008, the flight propeller had arrived from Florida and had been installed.
Publicity given to this project brought forward relatives or descendants of all of the AEA’s principals save for Curtiss. An important recruit for the project was former Canadian astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason, who had become aware of the Silver Dart project after he took his Pitts Special for maintenance work at Wayne Cole’s fabric shop, and noticed components of the Silver Dart inside it. Eventually, Jermyn made the University of Western Ontario professor an intriguing offer: do you want to fly it? “He said yes.”
As a professor of flight dynamics, Tryggvason brought his own special skills to the project. He had access to the university’s wind tunnel and determined the original Silver Dart had a basic flaw that made it unstable in windy conditions — graphically illustrated by the crash of the 1959 replica of the aircraft. (The replica’s center of gravity was found to be about 10 inches behind the wing leading edge. “To get the stability right, his calculation showed it should be only a couple of inches behind the leading edge,” Jermyn said. As a result of Tryggvason’s recommendation, the builders of the replica drooped and extended the leading edge of the elevator by about four inches.
Jermyn said the replica’s builders learned a great deal about the challenges faced by the original builders back in 1909 and their willingness to learn from their mistakes. “Had they progressed further, they would have come out with quite a nice airplane,” he said, adding, he’s been told the AEA had plans to enclose the front of the aircraft. Alas, when an improved version was demonstrated to Canada’s military forces at Camp Petawawa in August 1909, the aircraft was severely damaged and the federal government dropped plans to acquire it. By that point, though, the AEA had already disbanded.
The replica was virtually complete by late 2008, Jermyn said. The pilot’s seat had been upholstered and a simple instrument set installed. Bows were added to protect the undersides of the wings. On January 11, 2009, the Silver Dart was wheeled out and started. Jermyn noted that its Lycoming engine ran well, though it was about 400 rpm short of the expected 2500 rpm — still good enough to fly in cold weather. Because champagne was not permitted in the hangar, builders celebrated with chocolate mints!
In early February, it was dismantled and taken to the hangar of the Canadian Warplane Heritage at the Hamilton International Airport, where the 6000-foot runway would be available. It was on this runway that Tryggvason got it airborne Feb. 6.
Jermyn noted that the crew was to become more and more skilled at assembling and disassembling the aircraft as they gained experience. “The funny thing is that it used to take us about a week to assemble the airplane; after doing it so many times, we can now do it in one day. It used to take us two days to disassemble it; we now can do it in about three hours!”
The replica originally was fitted with a slightly smaller nosewheel than was used by the original – wherein a complicated engineering tale. Tryggvason’s wind tunnel tests determined the replica’s wing “was much better than the original wing. We had very few gaps in the lacing; very few holes for the air to leak through.
The problem with this, Tryggvason discerned, was that “what would happen was that the wing would start flying before the elevator was capable of lifting the front end, so he’d be going along on the nosewheel – he called this ‘wheelbarrowing’”.
This might have been a bit hard to handle, so a smaller nosewheel was installed to drop the angle of attack, “and that delayed the rear wing’s flight.”
When it flew for the first time, “he had no trouble controlling it; it was amazingly stable … he never flew it very high when it was at Hamilton; he kept it about 10 feet – maximum.”
Jermyn and his wife followed in a truck, videotaping the historic flight. Based on the speed of the truck, his best guess is that the Silver Dart became airborne at between 40 and 42 km/h and flew at 50 kmh.
Because of the use of slightly larger diameter (and heavier) bamboo plus heavier fabric and other additions, the replica (with the pilot aboard) weighed about 1,150 pounds, compared with 860 for the original.”
In mid-February, the replica was placed in a pair of transport trucks and taken to Baddeck Bay on Cape Breton. A large tent-hangar, complete with plywood floor, heater and lights -- had been built by the Baddeck organizing committee, which had also arranged for clearing a runway (3,000 feet long and 75 feet wide) on the surface of the famous bay. There was a minor problem with the nosewheel, but this was fixed within two hours. The final touch: a wartime RCAF veteran loaned Tryggvason a heavy leather jacket lined with sheepskin.
Moreover, the weather was good -- warmer, in fact, than in Hamilton.” It turned out that the 22nd was the only day when we could have flown ... I think Alexander Graham Bell was looking out for us because every day when we needed to do something, we got good weather!”
Local interest was intense. The hangar was about four kilometres from Baddeck “and cars were lined up all the way to town and a kilometre past.”
After this flight, the Silver Dart was disassembled and sent to Greenwood Nova Scotia for a couple of non-flying shows in April and May. It returned by road to Ontario in June where it was to make a series of non-flying appearances at air shows and open houses throughout the summer. In the late autumn of 2009, work will begin on converting it into what Jermyn called “in a full museum version” with the Lycoming engine replaced with the replica engine. The Silver Dart has not flown since its visit to Baddeck – and Jermyn's OK with that. “I’m happy; I don’t want it to be broken after we spent five years building it.”
It was to travel to nonflying displays, but only short distances. Transporting it from southern Ontario to Baddeck and back cost about $23,000; taking it to Abbotsford in the summer of 2009 would have been in the range of $40,000.
In the spring of 2010, it is scheduled to go on display at the Canadian Air & Space Museum (formerly the Toronto Aerospace Museum), where it will stay for three or four years until construction of a new wing at the Bell Museum at Baddeck is completed. Although much of the design and engineering work “was done on scraps of paper”, some has been stored and a book about the project is being written by Ted Beaudoin
“Quite a legacy for our grandkids,” Jermyn told the conference. “And one I’m pleased to be associated with.”