Canada’s first aviation meet – 1910
By Rénald Fortier
June 26, 2009 – In April of 1910, newspaper articles began to appear in Montreal dailies about a large aviation meet to take place later in the year.
By Rénald Fortier
June 26, 2009 – In April of 1910, newspaper articles began to appear in Montreal dailies about a large aviation meet to take place later in the year. The presence of two airplanes at the annual automobile show, held in the city in late March, had created quite a stir and its organizers concluded it was high time the “métropole du Canada” offered its citizens the chance to see pilots and airplanes in action. Other community leaders agreed. The Automobile and Aero Club of Canada, a wealthy organization, got to work. A general manager and managing director were chosen: Charles William Bennett, a well-known theatre producer, and E.M. Wilcox, manager of the automobile show and publisher of the magazine Motoring.
It was decided early on that things would be done on a big scale. Canada’s first aviation meet would bring together well known aviators, mainly from outside the country. These men would take part in 17 events sponsored by well known companies, groups and residents. Besides the usual speed, altitude and distance competitions, with or without a passenger, one could find an Imperial prize given to the best performance by a Canadian pilot flying a Canadian or foreign airplane, a prize for the fastest lap around the field with a female passenger, as well as a mock bombing competition.
The site chosen was at Lakeside, now Pointe-Claire, about 25 kilometres west of downtown Montréal. This was a somewhat unusual choice. At the time, the city core had few green spaces. It was crowded and hot during the summer. Wealthy residents sought comfort in cottages located along waterways while less affluent Montrealers used the city’s extensive streetcar network to cool off with their family at a park, beach or entertainment area. Display pilots and their managers noted this and demonstration flights before the Great War often took place in such locations. The site of the 1910 Montréal aviation meet did not fit this pattern. While accessible by train, crucial to transport the crowds and the aircraft to and from the meet, it was in fact a farming area where workers spent days removing fences and filling in ditches. Negotiations with the owners of the five farms whose land was used proved time consuming. Early on, residents indicated the site was windy, an added complication for any aviator.
Flying activities at the meet, often known in French as the Grande semaine d’aviation de Montréal, would begin Saturday, June 25, just after French Canada’s national holiday, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. International in nature and greater in stature than any other event of this type held so far in North America, the Montréal meet welcomed two or three parachutists, two airship pilots and nine aviators, most of them from the United States. One of the most famous airmen present came from outside North America though. He was Count Jacques de Lesseps .
A natural showman, this French aviator was the son of Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, the driving force behind the construction of the Suez Canal, in Egypt. He learned to fly under the eyes of Louis Blériot, a national hero since his July 1909 flight across the Channel, the first ever made in an airplane. In May 1910, de Lesseps completed the second crossing of this body of water at the controls of a Blériot XI monoplane nicknamed Le Scarabée. He became a star almost overnight. De Lesseps came to Montréal with two Blériot XIs, including Le Scarabée. The services of this suave and skillful pilot did not come cheap, however. The large sum he received covered his expenses and those of his entourage, a sister and brother, a doctor and two mechanics.
To beef up its roster of pilots, the meet’s organizing team looked to the United States as well. It signed a contract with the fathers of powered flight, Wilbur and Orville Wright. In exchange for a large sum of money, the latter sent four members of their recently formed exhibition team: Walter Richard Brookins , Frank Trenholm Coffyn, Ralph Johnstone and Duval La Chapelle. Four Wright Model A biplanes and their mechanics came with them. Brookins was the best known aviator in the group, as well as one of the most talented and daring. He had set a world altitude record (c. 1 335 metres) two weeks before the Montréal aviation meet began. The first pilot trained by the Wrights for their exhibition team, Brookins became their first instructor. Indeed, he had known both men since childhood. The son of a banker, Coffyn first met Wilbur Wright through a meeting arranged by his father. Cautious and reliable, he strictly followed the safety protocols established by his employers. Johnstone, on the other hand, was a vaudeville stunt cyclist before he became a pilot. This daring aviator seemed particularly interested in setting altitude records. The oldest pilot at Lakeside, La Chapelle was living in France when he met Wilbur Wright and worked for him as a mechanic in 1908-09. After running into a hangar at the Wright’s main base on his first solo flight, the new pilot admitted he had rather poor eyesight, apparently because of cataracts.
The one Canadian who might rival de Lesseps and the Wright pilots was John Alexander Douglas McCurdy. The airplane McCurdy planned on flying at Lakeside was the Baddeck No. 1 biplane – the first powered airplane made in Canada.
Besides these well known pilots and airplanes, people coming to Lakeside would see two locally-owned Blériot XI recently imported from France. One was the property of R. Baker Timberlake, a businessman and well known motorist who may have intended to teach himself how to fly during the meet. The other belonged to William Carruthers, another local businessman. A French pilot named Paul Miltgen had been hired to fly it. The so-called Hubbard monoplane, a machine also known as Mike, would be present as well. It had been built by Canadian Aerodrome, after a design submitted by its owner and test pilot, Gardiner Greene Hubbard II of Boston.
Spectators present at Lakeside on June 25th, a gorgeous day, got their money’s worth even if contaminated fuel caused a few difficulties. Montréal’s mayor, John James Edmund Guerin, officially opened the meet. Brookins lifted off first, before the official start perhaps, thus completing the first flight of a powered airplane in Québec. He went on to make two other flights that day. De Lesseps equaled the American’s tally, while Johnstone flew once. The French aviator’s willingness to fill gaps caused by various problems endeared him to the crowd which made him its favourite. Miltgen’s brief flight in William Carruthers’ Blériot XI ended with a spectacular fall. The airplane was seriously damaged; he was lucky to escape injury, if not death. One of the airship pilots, 17-year old Cromwell Dixon, took off without a hitch.
On Monday, all four pilots of the Wright team flew above the crowds: twice in the case of Brookins and Johnstone, and once in the case of their teammates. De Lesseps made two successful flights as well. Both airship pilots got airborne during the day. Fred Owens flew twice and landed without incident but Dixon was forced to land when he stalled his engine during his second ascent. He jumped on the ground too soon and could not grab the airship’s guide rope. Now much lighter, the craft rose quickly until its envelope burst. McCurdy tried to take off three times but did not achieve much.
The Canadian pilot proved equally unlucky on June 28. By then, many were making fun of him, especially since de Lesseps and the Americans seemingly flew as they pleased despite the rather windy conditions: twice in the case of the Frenchman and six times in the case of the Wright pilots. Brookins himself made three flights. To top it off, he sat besides Coffyn when the latter made his one flight of the day. Owens completed one ascent.
Neither was Wednesday, June 29 a good day for Canadian pilots. Montréal’s R. Baker Timberlake completed three brief flights. He could not stop in time upon landing the fourth time around and crashed into a blackboard near the grandstand. McCurdy all but lost control while turning soon after takeoff. He made a heavy landing in the tall grass outside the field. To make things worse, souvenir hunters carried away many small pieces of his partially wrecked airplane. Neither man was injured but they could only watch as de Lesseps and three of the Wright pilots soared above the crowds despite the windy conditions.
The brother of the French aviator, Bertrand de Lesseps, went with the American aviator on Thursday for one of the three flights he made that day. Yet again, all the Wright exhibition team pilots got into the air. La Chapelle, for example, completed three flights while Johnstone made two and Coffyn one. Steady as ever, de Lesseps flew above Lakeside on two separate occasions. Owens made one ascent.
July 1, or Dominion Day as it was then called, saw the largest crowd at the meet. Some of Montréal’s most prominent citizens cheered de Lesseps as he went up three times but Brookins did better with four flights, including one with a passenger, teammate Frank Trenholm Coffyn. Another included an impromptu race between him and an automobile driven by members of the organizing committee. The other three Wright pilots, not to mention Owens, each made a solo flight. At one point, three airplanes were in the air simultaneously. The crowd went wild.
Saturday, July 2, saw something wonderful. De Lesseps made a 49 minute roundtrip flight to downtown Montréal aboard Le Scarabée, a first for any Canadian city. People in the streets pointed at the sky and cheered. This was one of two flights he made that day on the recently-assembled machine. De Lesseps’ 50 to 55 kilometre journey was one of the very first cross-country flights in Canada. The crowd shouted itself hoarse as Wright team members hoisted the hero of the meet on their shoulders in triumph. The other flights made by the Americans, two by Brookins and La Chapelle and one by Coffyn and Owens, paled in comparison. This being said, Brookins reached a height of 1 070 metres. He is also said to have bombed a make believe fort using small sandbags. Previously set charges went off as he went by. The crowd was suitably impressed.
Although not a very busy day, Monday, July 4, the American national holiday, had its share of excitement. De Lesseps lifted off twice, flying each of his Blériot XIs in turn. Much impressed by the accomplishments of the French pilot, the elders at Caughnawaga, today’s Kahnawá:ke, a Six Nations reserve near Montréal, made him a member of their tribe. Gardiner Greene Hubbard II tried to take off aboard his airplane but failed. He had been waiting for his engine for some days. Dixon, on the other hand, had a close call when he took off aboard William Carruthers’ Blériot XI – his first flight in an airplane. He barely missed the grandstand, where quite a few people sat in shock, and completed a brief and rather wild flight with an awkward landing in a farmer’s field.
Originally scheduled to last ten days, the Montréal aviation meet was extended to July 5. Hoping to increase its financial intake, the organizing team cut the admission fee to a dollar for an adult and 50 ¢ for a child, transport included. Indeed, the final day of the meet was deemed to be Children’s Day. A city councilor had pressed hard for this. As many schoolchildren as possible should see airplanes up close, he thought. Sadly, few people showed up and there was little to see or do. The Wright pilots and McCurdy had either left or were about to go. De Lesseps saved the day with two flights aboard Le Scarabée, a somewhat sad conclusion to the first aviation meet held in Canada.
As the organizers closed the books, one conclusion was inescapable. Even though large numbers of people – 40 000 or so perhaps – had walked through the gate and were thrilled, the meet had not been a financial success. Expenditures had exceeded receipts. Nonetheless, the team said it was very pleased. Theirs was a moral victory since aviation had been brought to the attention of many Canadians. The media coverage it received greatly exceeded that given to the first flight of a powered airplane in Canada. The aviation meet also touched, or even changed, the lives of many others who would go on to make their marks in the history of Canadian aviation.
Rénald Fortier is Curator, Aviation History. Canada Aviation Museum, Ottawa
To read a more detailed version of this article, go to www.wingsmagazine.com and visit the 100 Years page.