First aeroplane flight in Western Canada — it took three attempts to become airborne

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

Apparently, the first flight in Western Canada was only witnessed by a handful of people, since most left as the day grew late and few expected Eugene Ely to rise into the air in his flying machine. Those who stayed saw machinist James L. Henning get the 40-hp engine running. Once underway, the engine’s “explosions were so loud and rapid to be startling. The propeller with four long wooden arms, located just back of the engine, began to revolve at a terrific rate, and with a ‘whirr’ that could be heard a mile away.”

During Ely’s first of three attempts, the aircraft bumped its way along the improvised runway for about a quarter of a mile, and it then “ascended gracefully until it attained a height of about twenty feet travelling at that height for six hundred yards before gradually coming to the ground again.”

On the second attempt, Ely achieved a height of 6.7 metres (22 feet) before landing heavily  and snapping a wooden stay connecting the “top plane (wing) with the rudder.”

After examining the damage, Ely decided repairs weren’t necessary for his third attempt.

The engine was restarted “with a roar and the aviator this time made an ascent after travelling a few hundred feet ... and the small group of spectators were treated to the sight of a great bird-like machine in full flight. While in the air, Ely banked his machine toward the spectators on the ground, but a few hundred yards away from the group, the “whir and chatter of the propeller suddenly stopped and the machine checked in full flight, swept gracefully toward the earth.”

The spectators held their breath as the machine struck the ground at an angle, resulting in damage to some of the aeroplane’s stays and braces.

“Eugene Ely, calm and collected, stepped from his seat and gave directions for hauling the biplane back to the grounds.”

Ely’s flight gained international 

attention for the wrong reason. The New York Times mistakenly reported on July 17, 1910: “Eugene Ely, an 

aviator, in his third attempt to fly between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie late last night, fell a distance of several hundred feet. He was picked up in a dying condition on the prairie.”

This inaccurate account was picked up by a number of North American newspapers. Days later, newspapers said reports of Ely’s death were greatly exaggerated, as he escaped the crash with a slight bruise on his knee.

There is some speculation that Ely’s was not the first heavier-than-air flight in Manitoba and Western Canada, although the contrary evidence is somewhat sketchy.

The Portage la Prairie Weekly Review on July 20, 1910, reported that people had flocked to see another Curtiss aeroplane in that community’s fair enclosure. An advertisement in the newspaper claimed the Curtiss machine was the first aeroplane to make an appearance in Western Canada (the same claim was made in advertisements for the Winnipeg exhibition). The newspaper on July 20 said the unnamed aviator made 12 unsuccessful attempts to get the aeroplane aloft. 

A week earlier, the same news-

paper on July 13, 1910, mentioned that the Curtiss aeroplane did take to the air. It said the operator (again unnamed) made three successful flights on the west side of the fair grounds “rising 80 feet (24.38 metres) and sailing for a considerable distance.” 

The Free Press did not mention this feat, but only said there was another Curtiss aeroplane at the Portage Fair, which ran from July 11 to 14.

The Portage assertion conflicts with the claim by the Free Press that the first controlled flight in Western Canada by an heavier-than-air 

machine was made on July 15 with Ely as its operator. The surprising aspect of the Portage newspaper claim was that the supposedly history-making event was only fleetingly mentioned, with just one paragraph covering the feat and that account was deeply buried among other news about the Portage Fair, such as apparently more newsworthy fair prize winners and horse racing results. On the other hand, Ely’s July 15 flight in Winnipeg was given prominent placement in the Free Press and all his preparations and attempts to fly were heavily reported. And while the Free Press continually named Ely as the Curtiss aviator in Winnipeg, the Portage la Prairie Weekly Review did not see fit to name the aviator at the Portage fairgrounds. 

It is also probable that the Portage flyer did not achieve sustained flight— brief hops into the air are not controlled nor sustained flight. As well, “sailing for a considerable distance” is not evidence of powered flight, but of shutting down an engine and gliding back to the ground.

Why hadn’t the July 20 issue of the Portage newspaper informed readers that, despite the 12 unsuccessful flights it reported, a week earlier the aviator had successfully flown?

And as Ely continually told the exhibition directors, plenty of space was required to get a Curtiss aeroplane into the air, which is why he abandoned the exhibition grounds in favour of the prairie alongside McPhillips Street. 

Using Ely’s argument, it is unlikely the Portage aviator was able to achieve sustained flight in the confined space of the Portage fairgrounds.

The Western Canadian Aviation Museum publication WCAM Aviation Review (December 1988), in an article entitled Recollection of Winnipeg’s First Flight, makes no reference to the Portage flight. The claim made in the magazine was that Ely’s flight was the first in Winnipeg and there was no mention of it being the first flight in Western Canada.

There is no evidence available in the newspapers and other sources I have consulted to allow the Portage claim to stand up to close scrutiny. Until there is, Ely remains credited with the first heavier-than-air powered flight in Western Canada. 

Later newspaper accounts of the Ely flight on July 15, 1910, acknowledged it as the first in Western Canada. The only exception I could find is the 1974 pictorial publication Winnipeg 100: Then and Now, which incorrectly gives Frank Coffyn the credit for the first successful flight in Winnipeg at the 1911 exhibition while flying a Wright biplane. The caption on the page of aviation firsts in Winnipeg incorrectly asserted the 1910 flight by Ely ended in failure.

After repairing his aircraft on Sunday, July 17, Ely was again briefly in the air, making two short hops — sustained flight was not accomplished — across the grass infield at the exhibition grounds. It was reported  the short hops into the air were only meant to demonstrate the power of the Curtiss biplane.

Returning to the prairie alongside McPhillips Street, Ely on Tuesday, July 19, made another series of short flights. During the last flight of the day and travelling a distance of about 100 metres, the aircraft’s wheels struck some small depressions while landing resulting in further damage. An automobile was dispatched for some timber, but by the time the damage was repaired, Ely decided it was too dark to make another attempt to fly.

Although Ely’s third flight on July 15, 1910, was far from spectacular, he did get off the ground and flew for a considerable distance before crashing. 

It should be noted that the Wright Brothers were credited with the world’s first successful heavier-than-air flight after travelling just 36.576 

metres (120 feet) in 12 seconds on 

December 17, 1903. 

Still in 1910, people expected more and a short hop into the air was not considered a successful flight.

The Free Press reported on Thursday, July 22, that the exhibition directors had become disillusioned with bird-man Ely and his flying machine. The directors met with Ely on July 21 and told him that unless he made a flight in the full view of the exhibition audience, no further money would be handed over to him. The directors said Ely had been paid $500 to bring his aircraft to the exhibition and his contract stipulated he was to be given $200 a day in expenses to perform flights in front of the exhibition grandstand. By July 21, Ely was only paid $400 for expenses, although he had been in the city for over a week.

The contract crisis came to a head when Ely failed to take to the air during Citizen’s Day — a civic holiday which attracted throngs of people to the exhibition  — when the day was calm and flying conditions were ideal.

As reported in the Free Press, the directors said: “At the recent aviation meet in Minneapolis it was shown almost conclusively that a four-cylinder engine, such as in the machine here, is not powerful enough for full flight. Mr. Ely has made excuses in regard to the wind, but it was pointed out that Brookins (another aviator), in a wind of 22 miles an hour (35.4 km/h), reached 4,300 feet (1,310.64 metres) at Montgomery, Alabama, establishing a world’s record.”  

Walter “Brookie” Brookins established the altitude record on June 14, 1910, while at the controls of a Wright biplane.

The directors’ complaints were primarily unfounded, as aviation was still in its infancy and flying machines were usually woefully underpowered, necessitating near perfect conditions before rising above the ground. Improvements to horse power output made greater sustained flights possible as the 1910s progressed: eight-cylinder 50-, 60- and 75-hp water-cooled aircraft engines were just being introduced by the Curtiss company. At the Minnesota State Fair, Curtis made numerous and lengthy flights using an aeroplane with a water-cooled V-8, 50-hp engine. It was possible the exhibition management believed a similar aircraft would be sent by Curtiss to Winnipeg, although this turned out not to be the case. 

The four-cylinder, 30-hp Curtiss 

engine, rotating a pusher propeller connected by a chain to the drive shaft, allowed the flying machine owned by Ely to fly at about 64 km/h (40 mph), but it took considerable effort from the straining engine and propeller to get the 385-kilogram airplane off the ground. 

Another problem was that the first aircraft were so flimsily designed that they could be easily damaged on the ground by wind overturning them or during a heavy landing. In such flimsy flying machines, it was a toss-up whether aviators would land safely. In fact, at a time when flyers were a relatively rare breed, 32 aviators lost their lives in aircraft accidents in 1910. In 1911, another 99 aviators died in crashes (the New York Times in 1911 listed their names). 

The first person to die in an airplane crash was U.S. Army Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, while flying as a passenger in a Wright Flyer piloted by Orville Wright in 1908. 

Selfridge was an early member of the AEA and designed the Red Wing, the association’s first powered aircraft. On March 12, 1908, the Red Wing, piloted by Frederick W. Baldwin in a non-public demonstration, raced over the frozen surface of Keuka Lake near Hammondsport, New York, on runners, and flew just over 100 metres before crashing. The Red Wing was destroyed in a crash on its second flight on March 17, 1908.

On October 19, 1911, at Macon, Georgia, Ely died in an airplane crash during a fairground exhibition. 

Despite the complaints from the Winnipeg exhibition directors, Ely convinced them to wait until his manager arrived to clear up the outstanding issues between the two parties. During the meeting, Ely argued he had been able to view the crowd in the exhibition grandstand when he made his flight on July 15, and was sure the people in the grandstand saw him flying. He said his contract stipulated that he would only fly from a suitable place, which he claimed was not provided. As well, correspondence he sent prior to coming to Winnipeg stated he only promised to make spectacular flights when conditions were calm, and “only short flights when the wind was blowing less than fifteen miles an hour (24.14 km/h).”

Before he met with the directors, Curtiss had  telegrammed Ely to leave Winnipeg and take part in an Omaha demonstration. Ely told the directors he declined the request, citing the need to resolve the “crisis.”

The crisis was never resolved to Ely’s satisfaction, although his manager did come to the city to present the Curtiss case. The Free Press on July 26, 1910 (three days after the exhibition had ended), reported that the exhibition management refused to pay Ely more money and the history-making aviator left town with just a $900 paycheque.

In the midst of the crisis, Ely persuaded the directors to allow him to set up his tent and “flying apparatus” in the heart of the exhibition grounds. Ely then charged 25-cents per person to view his aeroplane. This was a significant concession since the original contract with Ely called for the aircraft display to be free to the public. It was perhaps one way for the exhibition management to provide Ely with some pocket change while the contract issue remained in limbo.

Another money-making scheme arose when the T. Eaton Company offered Ely $5,000 if he successfully flew from Winnipeg to Portage. The pot was sweetened when businessman J.C. Eaton added another $1,000 to the kitty. 

To claim the prize, Ely had to fly with a package from exhibition president A.A. Andrews and deliver it to Portage Mayor Woods.

But as later events demonstrated, the Curtiss aeroplane was not up to the task of flying the 100-kilometre distance and Ely failed to claim the $6,000 prize, despite boldly asserting on July 14 that he would be able to fly to Portage.

The problems with and experienced by Ely taught the exhibition directors valuable lessons. They had learned enough about the requirements for heavier-than-air flight to make improvements to the grounds, including a separate area and tent for aircrew, an area for spectators to view maintenance crews making flight preparations, the construction of gates to bring aircraft through the racetrack fences into the infield and smoothing the infield for easier take-offs.

The management contracted with American aviator Frank T. Coffyn, a member of the Wright barnstorming team, to fly at the 1911 Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition. As it turned out, the American aviator did not disappoint the exhibition management.

Coffyn’s first appearance in Canada was a year earlier at Montreal — his second public appearance anywhere, his first was in Indianapolis — where he made a flight every day for a week. 

“I have learnt a good deal about flying since that time,” Coffyn told the Free Press.

Coffyn, accompanied by his wife Louise, arrived in Winnipeg on July 12, 1911, via rail from Troy, New York. His first task  in Winnipeg was to oversee the unloading of the aeroplane components packed in crates and then to assemble the machine at the exhibition grounds. 

The Free Press reported the assembled aeroplane was made of spruce wood — “the lightest procurable” — and sail cloth. 

“He (Coffyn) presents a striking figure as he directs his operators, tall and slim, he is not perhaps a robust athlete, but his clean cut features and eager eye mark him off as one who is alert and alive to all that is going on around him. He shows not a sign of reckless daring, but of a calm readiness and promptness to meet every situation.”

In fact, Coffyn had gained a reputation as one of the safest aviators due to  his attention to detail. The safety measures he took paid off, as in 1911, Coffyn, an aviator for only 18 months, was the last member of the original six-man Wright flying team — all the others had been victims of crashes or had retired.

“Alone among them, Coffyn has preserved a unique record of steady and certain flight without incurring any serious accident.”

Unlike many of his contemporary flyers and despite his ominous name, Coffyn survived into old age, dying on December 10, 1960.

At first, it appeared that the weather in Winnipeg would cause a replication of the events of 1910. A strong westerly wind blew across the prairie, delaying Coffyn’s first flight attempt until conditions improved. At 6:30  p.m. on July 13, the wind had sufficiently calmed to attempt a flight and the aeroplane was wheeled out before the grandstand. 

Once aloft, Coffyn turned his machine westward, travelling a distance of just over three kilometres before circling back to the grandstand area. To cheers from the grandstand and as the exhibition band played, Coffyn made two figure-eights overhead and then landed.

His first flight on the evening of July 13 was noted as a “splendid display” as he weaved through the sky performing “steep dives at low altitude” in his 35-hp Wright biplane. 

Just before 8 p.m., he took off again and stayed aloft over the city for 10 minutes. Throughout the week, Coffyn continued to defy gravity in his heavier-than-air machine. 

One of his noted stunts was a race against a motorcycle and an automobile, with his flying machine eking out a victory over the two land-bound vehicles. 

W.C. Power, an employee of McLaughlin-Buick of Canada, earned the distinction of being the first aeroplane passenger in Western Canada when he was taken aloft by Coffyn.

The T. Eaton Company again offered prize money to fly between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie, but the Wright company declined the offer, saying $5,000 wasn’t enough to make the attempt worthwhile.

With the many flights made by Coffyn, the management’s disappointment of 1910 had been erased from memory. Coffyn’s success also convinced organizers that aviation was a viable entertainment feature at the exhibition.

In 1912, Jimmy Ward thrilled Winnipeggers by flying “over the heart of (the city) and directly along Main Street from the city hall to St. John’s Park” in his Curtiss biplane called Shooting Star, according to the Free Press. Thousands of people were reported to have seen the flight “from downtown streets and homes as well as ... the crowds at the exhibition grounds.” Traffic stopped along Main Street and people gazed skyward to get a better view of the spectacle.

“It was a nice ride tonight and she looks like a fine town from up there” said Ward, summing up his flight.

Despite his friendly comments, Ward was reported to be chilled to the bone and upon landing it took several minutes for him to warm up. In should be noted that early aviators flew open-cockpit aircraft and the clothing they wore barely protected them from the cold conditions of flying at altitude and the full force of a bone-chilling wind. 

Ward made 10 flights during the exhibition — his first established a new altitude record for Canada of 1,219.2 metres (4,000 feet), which in a later flight was increased to 1,828.8 metres (6,000 feet).

While Ward successfully flew on the first day of the exhibition on July 13, French aviator George Mestach extensively wrecked his Morane-Borel monoplane and abandoned any thought of attempting to repair and subsequently fly his machine during the exhibition. Mestach was barely off the ground when a gust of wind slammed his aircraft into a fence, causing it to strike the ground nose first. Besides severely crumpling the aeroplane’s wings, an examination of the wreckage showed three cracked engine cylinders and a bent propeller shaft. Rare to North American aviation of the era, Mestach’s monoplane used a French-designed 50-hp Le Rhone rotary engine — aircraft powered by light-weight air-cooled rotary engines revolutionized early aviation and dominated the air war over Europe during the First World War. 

Ward and his wife were among the first to reach the crash site, helping to free relatively unhurt Mestach from the wreckage. 

After the accident, Ward  told the Free Press he had difficulty becoming airborne during his flight, since the racetrack enclosure was “too small” to take off from and “the fences and tents and booths surrounding it are so close that it is exceedingly difficult to get high enough to clear them.” 

Apparently, the changes made by the exhibition directors were still not enough to satisfy aviators. 

Following the accident, Mestach packed up the wreckage and returned to Chicago to repair his machine.

The difficulties experienced by pioneer aviators in Winnipeg merely reflected the fact that aircraft technology was still in its infancy and extremely dangerous. It was perhaps the uncertain outcome of early aviation that added to the mystique of powered heavier-than-air flight.