In the air and on the ground

Doug Jermyn and Ray Larson in Larson's Fonthill basement, where much work was accomplished on the Silver Dart replica. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO

Local duo recall their role in the Silver Dart replica


ay Larson and Doug Jermyn were sitting in Larson’s Fonthill living room, trying to talk about the time that they built an airplane together. The plane the two helped to construct was a fully-functional replica of the first to fly in Canada, the Silver Dart.

“This story is just so big, it’s hard to know which part to tell,” said Larson. “But it probably begins with the original Silver Dart.”

The bicycle mechanics Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to achieve powered flight with their Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. The Wright brothers fiercely guarded their plane’s plans, and even a few years later there had still been few powered flights in the United States, and none in Canada.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, had along with his wife Mabel been working at creating his own heavier-than-air flying machine. He formed a research group called the “Aerial Experiment Association,” or the “AEA.” He and Mabel were joined by John McCurdy and Casey Baldwin, Canadian mechanical engineers, the American Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, and by Glenn Curtiss, an American inventor and the Wrights’ chief rival. In 1908, a plane designed by Baldwin and one by Curtiss both flew south of the border. (Litigation between Curtiss and the Wrights lasted until the Wrights’ deaths. The Wrights were so consumed by the legal process that they literally stopped inventing.)

It wasn’t until February 23, 1909 with the Silver Dart, designed and flown by McCurdy, that powered flight was achieved in Canada. Near Bell’s home in Baddeck, Cape Breton, where he would fly kites in the summer, McCurdy took off on the ice and flew for 800 metres. A few weeks later, he flew the Dart on a circular loop of 35 kilometres. In August of that year, McCurdy flew the first Canadian voyage with a passenger, though on that day in Petawawa the sandy soil was too much for the plane’s rudimentary wheels and it crashed. The Silver Dart never flew again.

On the 50th anniversary of the first flight, in 1959, a replica was built and flown at Baddeck, though it crashed during its first effort, and was re-assembled only to be installed in the Aviation Museum in Ottawa.

In 2003, a few plane-loving friends from Welland made the trip to Kitty Hawk to see the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Wright’s flight. The US Centennial of Flight Commission fielded bids from companies interested in re-creating the Wright’s accomplishment. The event, still available to view as a “fail” on YouTube, is almost difficult to watch. The pilot is shown lying on his chest as his replica Wright Flyer trundles down its track. Just as it is about to reach the track’s end, the plane’s ailerons fold open, ready to push the plane into the air. Instead it falls off the track’s end limply, tilting to one side and submerging a wing-tip in a puddle. The project cost $1 million dollars.

Those friends from Welland saw this debacle, turned to each other, and said, “We can do better than that. And we can do it for a lot less than a million bucks.”

When they got home, they contacted Larson and Jermyn, and the five of them together formed the Aeronautical Experimental Association 2005.”

Though they were all retired, and working as amateurs—Jermyn joked that the project kept them “off the street and out of the bars”—the group was made up of professionals. Larson, now 87, was for many years a mining engineer, and finished his career as a metallurgical engineer at Atlas Steel in Welland. Jermyn, who is a decade and some younger than Larson, was himself an aerospace engineer at Pratt & Whitney, one of the largest manufactures of aircraft engines in the world. And they all had extensive experience with private airplanes. Larson had previously built a plane himself, albeit a modern one with metal parts, while Jermyn had his pilot’s license and had built most of a plane, too. Another member, Jack Minor, was an aerial photographer in the Canadian military, and was able to acquire rudimentary plans for the Dart from the archives in Ottawa, while Larson flew to Baddeck and mined the Alexander Graham Bell Museum for information there. The group found some garage space in Welland and began construction.

“We used all the original material,” said Larson. “Ash wood for the main frame, and bamboo for all the struts. We formed other struts from spruce, which we hand to plane meticulously by hand.”

The group also sought to make the plane “intuitive to a modern pilot,” and so despite a commitment to the original plans, they did make some concessions.

“We didn’t want anyone to die flying the thing,” said Larson.

Bjarni Trygvasson flies the Silver Dart replica on February 22, 2009, at Baddeck, Cape Breton. SUPPLIED PHOTO

The original Dart had a sort of shoulder harness that the pilot used to steer, the idea at the time being that if the plane began to bank one way, it was likely that the pilot would instinctively lean the other, using the harness to level the aircraft’s attitude. This proved true just about as often as it proved false, with the false instances typically resulting in an even further dive to one side and an occasionally fatal crash.

The group’s replica, then, had all modern-style controls, as well as instruments that the original lacked. Finally, nylon was used for the fabric on the wings, rather than the balloon silk used in 1909.

None of these changes are immediately apparent upon seeing their replica Dart. Just like the original it looks more like an overgrown dragonfly than anything that a human could actually control. It has two layers of rigid wings, and then smaller ones positioned out front that move to adjust the plane’s altitude. An unenclosed engine hangs precariously off the back, featuring a propeller that the group carved from a single piece of wood. The whole thing is kept together only by bamboo rods and hundreds of feet of wire.

The project was not without problems—Jack Minor, the aerial photographer, resigned before complettion. “You and me, we even argued too, didn’t we?” said Larson to Jermyn.

“Oh yes,” said Jermyn, laughing now, as he remembered the conflicts then. “Many times.”

But after having spent thousands of hours working on it, changing plans, and re-working, by the end of 2008 the plane had come together. They had even found someone to fly it, someone arguably with unmatched qualifications.

By chance, Jermyn had encountered Bjarni Tryggvason, an astronaut with 4000 hours of flight time and who spent 12 days in space in 1997.

“When Bjarni gives talks now, he says that he has flown ‘high and fast, and low and slow.’ Our Dart was his ‘low and slow,’” said Larson.

Jermyn explained that they wanted the most experienced pilot possible to fly the Dart, and so they were happy to cede the controls to Tryggvason. (Jermyn managed to avoid old envy, too. He had applied to be an astronaut at the same time as Tryggvason, but was not selected for the program.)

A few weeks before the planned February 23 flight in Baddeck, intended to coincide precisely with the 100th anniversary, Tryggvason flew successful test runs at the Hamilton Airport. But this was not a guarantor of flight at Baddeck—and even getting the plane out there was a challenge.

“It took two semi-trailers to haul this airplane. It’s not that it was heavy, it was just big. It had a wingspan of nearly 50 feet,” said Larson.

The Bell Museum at Baddeck had an agreement with the group, and Larson said that when the plane still was in Hamilton, ten days before the planned flight, the Museum must have been getting nervous. “But it arrived on time,” he said.

Baddeck is a summer resort town, and generally most of its businesses hibernate during the coldest months. But during that week in February there wasn’t a single room to be found, with spectators and news crews arriving from around the country. Canada Post unveiled a commemorative stamp, and the Royal Canadian Mint released a special anniversary coin.

On February 22, a day before the 100th anniversary, Tryggvason took off and flew for a few minutes down the bay, getting about 40 feet off the ground. Hundreds lined the runway of ice, which the town had happily plowed for the plane.

“I’ve never really revealed this before,” said Jermyn, “but Bjarni wanted to fly it again. Had the weather on the twenty-third been good, he wanted to fly it on a loop around the bay.”

Unfortunately, winds were just too high on the day, and, as Jermyn said, the opportunity had passed.

“I said that the airplane’s just too valuable now. We’re not going to fly it anymore.”

In the summer of that year, the group took their Dart to a series of airshows around Ontario, though the plane did not leave the ground. “We used to love parking it nose-to-nose with a CF-18,” says Larson, referring to the RCAF’s 1800/km/h fighter jets.

Jermyn recalled his time in the Dart’s seat. “I only taxied the plane twice. Once in Hamilton, and then at the Brantford airshow, where we had the plane by the jet-line with the Snowbirds. In the afternoon, they were getting ready to fly these jets, so we had to get the Dart out of the way. By this time, all the crowds were there, running towards me, waving and taking pictures. I felt like the Queen of England taxiing down the runway,” he said, miming a royal wave.

At the end of the airshow season, the plane was brought back into a hangar in Niagara and converted to its museum configuration. This meant removing all of the “modern” parts of the plane—the engine, the controls, the rudimentary instrument panel made out of a cookie-tin—and replacing them with exact replicas of the original, shoulder straps and all.

Once done, they brought it back up to Baddeck, where the Bell Museum had reserved a spot for it hanging from the ceiling. The museum had to cut a hole in its wall just to get the Dart inside. When they were back in Baddeck this time, the group had become local celebrities.

“They had a little pizza place in town,” says Jermyn, “and we were all in there when a guy came in and recognized that we’d done the airplane. He got his pizza and went out to his car, emptied the pizza, and then came back and had us all sign his pizza box. We thought ‘Man. We just became rock stars!”

Larson laughed. “Yeah, I’d forgotten that. Wasn’t that funny.” The Bell Museum also gifted each of the five with a small original piece from one of Bell’s box kites that he flew at Baddeck over a century ago.

The two went silent for a minute, remembering. During construction, the five men stopped keeping track after 3500 hours of cumulative work. They made the Dart for a lot less than that $1 million the US government spent on the Wright Flyer, though it helped that the labour was free. They initially self-funded, though eventually they received funds from three major donors: the Ontario Trillium Grant, Pratt & Whitney, and Leavens Aviation, along with a few smaller contributors, combined for about $50,000 in funds.

“That’s what we built the plane for, and we did a much better job than the army did in 1959.” says Larson.

After construction, they still had enough left over to pay for their trips out to Baddeck. Now, Larson says, their memories are really the only thing left. Jermyn sold his airplane some time ago, and while Larson does still have the first one that he built in a hangar at Welland’s Dorothy Rungeling Airport, he doesn’t fly it any longer.

“I have the shakes, and I’m a full-time caregiver for my wife, who’s in a wheelchair. My life is too valuable to her now.”

“We had a website for our Dart, but that’s been down for while,” said Larson.

“Well, you can still access it, but not at the original URL,” said Jermyn.

“You’ll have to show me,” said Larson. “I’m so computer illiterate. I’m on Windows Ten now—I was fine with XP. I read the “For Dummies” book and everything. But I find Ten impossible.”

“I have the book for Ten,” Jermyn told him.

“Boy, I’ll have to get it,” Larson said. “Ten frustrates me. It does things that I don’t want it to do. And it won’t go back…I can build an airplane, but I can’t run a computer.”

Jermyn got up to leave.

“I know we’ll be getting together soon, though we’ll be sad about that,” said Larson.

One of their team members is currently suffering from a terminal illness. “We’re dying like flies. I wish we could get together and dedicate something to the ones we’re losing, but what are you going to do.” Larson shrugged.

“Anyway. It’s time for me to take on my third job—chef. Number one was engineer, number two is home caregiver, and number three is in the kitchen. And I’m only a ‘pseudo-cook.’”

He looked at the pork chops that were marinating on the counter, and then turned to Jermyn. “So long, partner,” he said.

“So long,” Jermyn said, stepping out into the late afternoon sun.

Editor’s Note: For a tongue-in-cheek take on the Silver Dart, enjoy this short This Hour Has 22 Minutes clip from June 2017.

About the Author

The Voice of Pelham
Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.