Getting History Straight – It’s a Battle Royal

Reginald Hunt as illustrated by G. LaRue. Hunt's name is nowhere to be found in the list of the original 598 "Early Birds" of aviation (earlyaviators.com). Naturally, the list includes the names of Baldwin, McCurdy and all other bone fide Canadian aviation pioneers. (via City of Edmonton Archives)

Reginald Hunt as illustrated by G. LaRue. Hunt's name is nowhere to be found in the list of the original 598 "Early Birds" of aviation (earlyaviators.com). Naturally, the list includes the names of Baldwin, McCurdy and all other bona fide Canadian aviation pioneers. (via City of Edmonton Archives)

John Chalmers submits this piece of Edmonton aviation lore — the first flight of Reginald Hunt. Hunt’s supposed 1909 efforts have not been publicized since then. He wasn’t covered by either Frank Ellis (Canada’s Flying Heritage), or George Fuller, et al (125 Years of Canadian Aeronautics). Hunt’s story was known to these eminent historians, but the absence of believable facts, made it prudent to await solid evidence, before accepting Hunt as a true Canadian aviation pioneer. To this time, nothing new surfaced.

The Journal covered Hunt in its September 8, 1909 edition. The totally crazy headline reads “Edmonton Carpenter Flies in Airship of His Own Invention: Keeps Aloft for Half an Hour Flying at Will Over Roofs of Houses —  Manufactured Own Monoplane — Had Been at Work on Problem Three Years — Engine Made from Own Model”.

The usual reporter’s hyperbole (easily spotted by an experienced researcher) is used. The alarm bells quickly go off when reading any such item. Reporters of the day rarely checked their facts and liberally made up details to embellish a story, e.g. should the length of Hunt’s first flight been 35 minutes, this would be the world’s longest first flight of the Early Bird era. Longest by far more than a nose! Most such first flights lasted no more than two minutes.

What we now would love to see (besides a few documented facts) would be a photograph of Hunt’s aeroplane, especially in flight. Surely, many such would have been taken, if the events described actually occurred, for North America by 1909 was well into the age of everyday photography. With even one photo, some of the details so vividly described in the Journal could be verified. One wonders why, based on one implausible newspaper story, the Alberta Aviation Museum has leapt to the wildest of conclusion, declaring on its website, “Edmonton Marks One Hundred Years of Aviation”. Give us a break!

This is what the Journal wrote in 1909:

To this city must be given the honor of numbering among her residents the first successful inventor of an airship in the Canada West. On Labour Day residents of the west end were startled to see, flying high over their houses, an airship carrying a full grown man. The mechanical bird hovered about for a time floating hither and thither, then settled down near the home of Reginald Hunt. Mr. Hunt had been working for three years to perfect his airship and his Labour Day flight crowned his efforts with success.

Inventor Hunt, who is a carpenter by occupation, is of a mechanical turn of mind, and has already attained a reputation as an amateur inventor, having designed several useful labor saving devices. About three years ago he became deeply interested in the problem of aerial navigation and every spare moment he has applied himself arduously to the task of designing an aeroplane or aeroglider (of the monoplane type), as he calls it.

At first his attempts met with only indifferent success, but enthused with the soul of an inventor he did not consider failure and ever tried again. He first succeeded in constructing a winged device with two great bird-like wings on either side, which would soar from an elevation to the ground maintaining an equal balance. This much accomplished, he turned his attention to the motor problem, and being an expert carpenter it was comparatively east for him to divert his skill in woodwork into the manufacture of patterns for the engine. In time, the castings were made and finished, and all the rods, gears, wheels, cams, etc., were converted into a living, snorting moving gasoline engine, the vital force for the airship.

This much attained, next came the assembling of the huge gasoline Bird. The wings and artificial feathers would glide themselves, but would they carry an engine? Thus arose other and more serious problems, such as vehicles of propulsion. Were they to be wings, windmill wheels or what? At last he decided upon fan-like affairs similar to those used to keep flies from sleeping in restaurants. The whole was assembled, and on Labor Day the holiday afforded an opportunity for practical test. The morning was taken up in the finishing touches. In the afternoon about two o’clock Hunt, who was assisted by F. Doxsey, seated himself in the machine and set the motor in motion. The propellers commenced to rotate, at first slowly, and then at terrific speed. Hunt’s heart stood still. Would it fly? The exciting moments of suspense were not long. The machine rose slowly at first, barely cleared a few buildings, then gaining momentum, soared high.

The flight was fraught with no little danger. The slightest miscalculation might result in collapse and not unlikely death to the daring aviator. Fortunately, however, the steering device and warping contrivance worked to perfection, and Hunt’s control of his machine was marvelous. After remaining in the air for about 35 minutes, during which he flew over the neighborhood at a height ranging from 35 to 50 feet above the housetops, the inventor descended to earth triumphant, a conqueror of the air.

Further flights will not likely be attempted until a more efficient motor has been secured. The motor filled its office all right on Labor Day, but Mr. Hunt is not altogether inclined to trust it. When seen by a Journal representative yesterday Mr. Hunt said: “I’m delighted with the success I have attained, and I am confident that with a good motor I can stay up as long as the gasoline lasts, go as high as I like and carry two other passengers. My machine is constructed on altogether new lines. I have watched all the scientific magazines and I know that nothing like it has ever been invented before.”

Mr. Hunt is going to take a trip to the coast soon, and while there will solicit financial assistance, which he says is his only drawback. It is chiefly in the so-called warping device that Mr. Hunt believes his air school to be greatly different from any yet devised. He thinks he has the problem of warping the plane to maintain equilibrium, solved, and that he will realise a fortune from his attainments.

John Chalmers of the AAM adds to the Hunt story. His use of such phrases as “remarkable achievement”, “records indicate” and “several successful flights” will leave any serious aviation history aficionado seeing a few red flags: Little remains of documentation about Reginald Hunt’s remarkable achievement. Records indicate it was equipped with what was Canada’s first pair of ailerons, and the engine was mounted behind the cockpit, making the machine a “pusher” type of aircraft. The engine powered two chain-driven propellers.

However, after several successful flights, in 1910 he crashed the aircraft while preparing for flights at the Edmonton Exhibition. He was uninjured, but the flying machine was destroyed. The incident ended his Edmonton flying career. For a while he built boats for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then eventually he made his way to Seattle and built more aircraft. But his career as an aviator was ended by the Hungry Thirties. He then permanently abandoned aviation, opened a massage parlour and worked as a naturopath. Born in England in 1884, Reginald Hunt died in 1978.

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