The replica, which hangs from the rafters of the museum, while not flyable, demonstrates, better than any story telling can, the kind of innovation and courage that was necessary in our earliest fliers.
The replica was built to honor the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight in 1903. It was built in 2003 in just 10 months by a team of enthusiastic and talented volunteers led by board member Dick Kiser. Most of the aircraft was made from scratch at the museum. Some parts had to be commercially fabricated to exactly replicate the original Silver Dart.
Its construction is largely the same as the original with the exception of some shaped airfoil stringers, which are actually aluminum, and the fabric, which is not quite the same as the rubberized balloon silk used originally. The original colour of the fabric was silver, thus the name of the aircraft. The engine is a scratch-built replica of the original Curtiss engine.
In 1907, Toronto engineering classmates Frederick "Casey" Baldwin and John A.D. McCurdy inspired the great inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, with tales of flight. Bell, through his association with the pioneering aircraft visionary Dr. S. P. Langley, had a keen theoretical interest in flight research. The Wright Brothers had become household names, as had the Brazilian, Santos Dumont and the Frenchmen, Louis Bleriot and Henri Farman. The inventive in many countries were planning enthusiastically about the prospects for powered flight.
At the urging of (and with funding of $35,000) Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard Bell, the Aerial Experimental Association (A.E.A.) was formed in Halifax, N.S. on September 30, 1907,
"For the purpose of carrying on experiments relating to aerial locomotion with the special object of construction of a successful aerodrome".
The association was strengthened by the inclusion of engine designer and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and an official observer of the American government, U.S. Army Lt. Thomas Selfridge.
The Association built a man-carrying kite and four powered aircraft, the Red Wing, the White Wing, the June Bug and the last, the Silver Dart, designed by McCurdy. Built and first flown by McCurdy on December 6, 1908 at Hammondsport, New York, the Silver Dart had been dismantled and was brought to Baddeck in January 1909 for further flying experiments as Dr. Bell was desirous of having one of the A.E.A. machines flown in Canada.
On February 23, 1909 in Baddeck, Bell’s wish came true as the members of the Aerial Experiment Association prepared to make another flight of the Silver Dart. This flight would be different because up to this point there had never been a recorded example of controlled powered flight in the young Dominion of Canada.
On February 23, 1909, a bitterly cold day, with all of Baddeck huddled together on the side of the long, narrow Bras d’Or Lakes, the Silver Dart was dragged along the ice behind a horse drawn sleigh. Men on skates at the wing tips kept the aircraft properly lined up as it made its initial run on the frozen lake.
At the controls was the energetic John A.D. McCurdy, a 23-year-old hometown boy. The Silver Dart slowly lifted off to some 40 feet of altitude and soaring (or maybe staggering) nearly 800 meters before McCurdy brought it gently back down on the ice. The first powered flight in the British Empire, by a British subject, had been made - and in Canada.
Reflecting on the event, Bell wrote,
"This may seem to be a small matter at the present moment; but when flying machines have become common and Aerial Locomotion a well-organized and established mode of transit, the origin and art in Canada will become a matter of great historical interest and people will look back to the first flight made on February 23, 1909, as the first flight of a flying machine in the Dominion of Canada".
Having accomplished their purpose of controlled flight, the A.E.A. disbanded on March 31, 1909. McCurdy and Baldwin remained partners and went on to build a line of successful aircraft and to establish many aviation firsts. Despite government and army skepticism, the partners demonstrated the Silver Dart at Camp Petawawa hoping to have its military applications recognized. After four successful flights on August 2, 1909, the Silver Dart was all but destroyed after a bad landing. After salvaging the engine from the wreckage, the broken airframe was abandoned at the camp. After some further drama associated with a sunken motor launch, the engine was recovered and is now on display at the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa.