The Last Word on the First Flight

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To be a part of the Canadian Air Force Centennial of Flight celebrations in 2009 has been a rare privilege and an honour for me. Few people have worked harder or longer than Brigadier-General Cloutier, to make the Centennial of Flight celebrations such a resounding success. Thank you ‘Sir’ for coming out of retirement and doing a truly magnificent job: you stand at the Vanguard of Excellence.

J.A.D. McCurdy would be honoured and delighted by Canada’s recognition of his aviation achievements. Therefore, on his and my behalf, may I say thank you to the Air Force and the many other volunteer organizations, which have coordinated my participation in various activities and speaking engagements across the country. I thank, as well, all my fellow Canadians, who have contributed so selflessly to this year’s success.

During 2009, I have been afforded the opportunity to speak to many Air Force Associations, Historical Societies and schools. I have also been deeply honoured to have had the occasion to salute our noble veterans and serving military personnel. We are tremendously indebted to those who have paid a dear price in service to their country. As Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”.

With the end of the celebrations looming closer and 2010 knocking at our doors, many people have asked me – as the grandson of J.A.D. McCurdy – “What has this year meant to you?”

I have met and been approached by many people: from aerospace engineers to World War Two veterans; from snowbird pilots to air cadets; from six year old school girls and boys, to ordinary everyday Canadians, many of whom have conveyed their conviction, that J.A.D. McCurdy is one of Canada’s true heroes. I have felt their passion and pride, their love and admiration for this man of destiny. I have been touched and moved in ways I simply cannot describe.

Reflecting over the past twelve months, I believe that the Centennial of Flight has been “An observance of achievement,” as Jim Shilliday postulates in his excellent book: A Memory of Sky: ‘not only an opportunity to bask in the past, but also to look to the future.’” Anatole France said, “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” And that is how my grandfather, Honourary Air Commodore, The Honourable John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, pursued his dream of flight.

Shilliday opines that J.A.D. McCurdy’s first controlled flight in Canada and the British Empire by a British subject in a heavier-than-air machine on February 23rd, 1909 “ was one of a galaxy of accomplishments.” Much has been written about J.A.D. McCurdy’s contributions to Canadian aviation history in this centennial year, not least, that in the span of just two years, he and his four colleagues, within the Aerial Experiment Association, would invent pontoons that allowed the lakes of Canada’s vast wilderness to become landing places; also the aileron and the tricycle landing gear. In fact, in a 1949 CBC interview from Government House, my grandfather said of the aileron … “This is the system used universally to this day, and I consider it … to be Canada’s outstanding contribution to aircraft development.” Incredibly, here we are a century later; the aileron is still used on aircraft worldwide. Each time I board a plane, look out the window and see the ailerons, I marvel at my grandfather’s legacy.

The then chairman of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor, wrote in 1959 that he had known Lindbergh, Amundsen, Byrd, Peary, Shackleton and “I regard J.A.D. McCurdy as a man who ranks with the very greatest of these.” In 1910, my grandfather became the first Canadian to be issued a pilot’s license. On the fiftieth anniversary in 1959 of his historic flight, he was awarded the McKee Trophy for his contribution to the advancement of aviation and the Queen appointed him an Honourary Air Commodore. The only other person, at that time, sharing the same distinction was Sir Winston Churchill.

I was part of the team called the AEA 2005 group, which built the 2009 Silver Dart replica that was transported down to Baddeck, Nova Scotia for a re-enactment of the historic February 23rd 1909 flight. Back in the summer of 2004, Jack Minor, a former photographer in the RCAF from Port Colborne, Ontario, who has spent a lifetime immersing himself in the life of J.A.D. McCurdy, floated the idea to some of his aviation contacts of building a replica of the Silver Dart, to recreate McCurdy’s historic flight. When I started working on the replica, I was gently guided through the vastly complex task of putting wood, wire, tape, steel rods, grommets, bolts and nuts, all together to construct a flyable aeroplane. I relished every minute of being there, as I realized what a privilege it was to be able to work on my grandfather’s aeroplane.

One of the many concepts my grandfather taught me, was that a life of giving would bring more fulfillment than a life of taking, and I thought about this message, as I toiled on the replica. The total accumulative time that the Welland Group has put into this magnificent venture is over 6,000 hours, with many donating their tools and their own money. It is fitting in this Centennial of Flight year, that on October 17th, 2009, at the Air Force Association of Canada’s Annual Awards Dinner in Trenton, Ontario, I was honored to be able to present one of its most prestigious trophies, the J.A.D. McCurdy Award, to the AEA 2005 Group in recognition for outstanding and praiseworthy achievements by Canadians in the field of Civil Aviation.

One hundred years later, the Aerial Experiment Association 2005 duplicated the 1909 feat, by flying the Silver Dart over the same expanse of frozen ice, with former astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason at the controls. What a breathtaking moment it was to see the replica take to the skies with thousands on hand for this historic re-enactment. Many were overwhelmed by the exhilaration of witnessing the Silver Dart lift majestically off the smooth ice; it was if time had stood still and I felt the presence of my grandfather whispering, “Move over Mr. Tryggvason, I’d like to fly her now!”

With a jolt of adrenalin, we were brought back to the present – and the future – with the roar from the magnificent Hawk One F-86 Sabre Jet and the two striking F18 Hornets as they made several passes over Baddeck Bay, dipping their wings in salute to the aeroplane that started Canada’s rich aviation history. All the Centennial of Flight pilots and their teams, who have visited countless Canadian cities and towns throughout 2009, have been such wonderful ambassadors and an outstanding credit to the Canadian Air Force.

One unique and poignant memory of our visit to Baddeck in February was being sworn in as members of 434 (Niagara Peninsula) Wing of the Air Force Association of Canada by its President, Don Feduck. As we stood on the ice of Baddeck Bay, Amanda and I swore our allegiance to country and Queen, with the Silver Dart as our backdrop.

Another memory: one husband and wife team had travelled all the way from British Columbia to be in Baddeck for this special day, to watch the Silver Dart take to the skies once more. They had obviously done their homework and examined the pictures of my grandfather’s flight in 1909, for around their necks hung their skates, so that in later years they could boast, that they had skated over the same frozen waters, 100 years later. They told me that this was their pilgrimage and personal tribute to my grandfather, in this centennial year.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, I met a family as we were waiting to change planes in Halifax airport. A mother and father, who had been in Baddeck for the celebrations, approached my wife Amanda, and asked if I could have a chat with their teenage son, who was wavering about entering the military. A year previously, this younger son had lost his older brother tragically to cancer, a brother with whom he was going to join the Air Force. After the requisite training, they were hoping to become fighter pilots and serve their country together. I spoke to this soul-searching boy, wrote something, had our picture taken and wished him God speed and good luck. I think about him every day and pray I was able to help him come to terms with his grief … in some small way.

One persistent gentleman has been writing to various politicians for nearly 50 years, vainly trying to persuade the appropriate authorities to name an airport after J.A.D. McCurdy, to honour his legacy. In July of this year, Amanda and I flew down to Sydney, Nova Scotia, where, 100 years later, the renaming of Sydney airport to the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport took place. Fraser Muir – the letter writer who had originally floated the idea half a century ago – flew in with his wife to witness this epic event. He could scarcely believe that his dream had finally come true. “Never, never, never, never give up” as Churchill used to admonish. It was an honour to shake this 85 year-old gentleman’s hand and offer my undying admiration for his unyielding persistence.

When I was a young boy, I spent numerous summer holidays in Baddeck where my grandparents had a beautiful log summerhouse. This summer, I was invited back by the present charming owners to come for an afternoon and see my grandparent’s two-acre estate. As I was finishing my tour, we found ourselves sitting in the living room, in front of the vast fireplace where I had had many discussions with my grandfather, so many years ago. My senses were overwhelmed as I recalled the tales and lessons, which my grandfather had passed on to me, as I quietly sat at his feet.

One of the most surreal events that Amanda, Emma, our daughter, and I attended, during the Baddeck visit, was being invited to a jamming session with Chris and Dave Hadfield, just hours after the successful Silver Dart replica flight. The three of us went to their quarters, to be joined by all the Hawk One pilots, the Air Force photographer, as well as two of Canada’s astronauts and Loreena McKennitt, the supremely talented Celtic singer. With song sheets in front of us, and the Hadfield brothers accompanying us on their guitars, we all exercised our lungs, good and bad singers alike. It was such a perfect evening to end a truly unforgettable day. Imagine, if you can, being serenaded by Canada’s first astronaut to float freely in space, by the former astronaut who flew as a payload specialist aboard the 1997 Space Shuttle Discovery, by three of Canada’s Snowbird pilots and by one of Canada’s most talented musicians. Those of you who have 20-year-old sons or daughters will appreciate how hard they are to impress. As we bid farewell to our singing group at 2 a.m., and gingerly stepped outdoors to -20 degrees, Emma announced, “Daddy … you hang with a pretty cool crowd!”.

One of the most enriching experiences for me this year, has been the opportunity to meet numerous Air Cadets and Officer/Cadets of our military colleges, three of Canada’s Astronauts, many of this country’s most gifted pilots, senior Generals and honored veterans. These members of the air force are the product of the seeds first sown in 1915, when my grandfather established Canada’s first aviation school. How proud he would be to meet these impressive men and women, who have maintained Canada’s Air Force, at the pinnacle … of worldwide excellence.

As I reflect on today’s Canadian Air Force, Canada’s aviation pioneers and my grandfather’s achievements, I am reminded of the words of Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Every great idea begins with a dream. Always remember, we have within us … the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. My grandfather changed forever the world of his time by believing in a dream: a dream of flight and of putting a man into the air. The Honourable J. A. D. McCurdy, on his historic flight in the Silver Dart, unleashed the power of man to thrill, shock, elevate and set Canadians free from the pull of gravity. He put his hand on … the “Arc of History” and bent it towards the milestone of Canadian aviation.

He truly was my hero.

Gerald Haddon 

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