J.A.D. McCurdy: Reaching new heights

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

McCurdy sits in a Curtiss JN-4 bi-plane in 1911. Source: City of Toronto Archives Photo, Fonds 1244, Item 79.

Daniel Prinn

Algonquin College Journalism Program

John Alexander Douglas McCurdy was the first Canadian to ever pilot an aircraft. Not only that, but he was the first person to fly a plane so far over the sea that he couldn’t see the shore. His goal was to fly over the Straights of Florida from Key West to Havana – thus setting a new world record for distance flown over open water.

The Havana Post and the city of Havana, Cuba, had offered McCurdy $8,000 to be the first person to fly the 94-mile distance. McCurdy accepted because, as he put it, he had “the spirit of romance and adventure” in his soul. And so, in 1911, he attempted the flight. Unfortunately his engine failed near Havana and McCurdy had to risk a water landing. He survived, but the plane did not. Still, he’d beaten the record, and he was the first pilot to fly from Florida to Cuba.

McCurdy had been fascinated by planes since he was a boy. The son of Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, McCurdy would often help Bell with glider and kite experiments. Bell later helped put McCurdy through school. In 1906, McCurdy earned his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Toronto. He formed the Aerial Experiment Association with Frederick Walker Baldwin and Alexander Graham Bell, with the intention of testing the feasibility of powered flight. The last plane the group constructed was the Silver Dart – which McCurdy himself designed. After participating in over 200 short flights in experimental aircraft, McCurdy took the Silver Dart into flight in 1909. This was the first time an airplane had flown anywhere in the Commonwealth.

McCurdy helped establish Canada’s first aviation school, co-founded the Canadian Aerodrome Company, Canada’s first aircraft manufacturer, and helped create the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in 1961 and was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012.

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