Category Archives: Aviation myths

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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Fantasyland: The Arrowmaniacs Strike Again

Canada sure has its mythology under many a banner. Aviation myths involve Billy Bishop shooting down 72 enemy planes in WWI (not), the Beaver being the world’s greatest bushplane (not) and the Avro Arrow being the greatest everything ever made by anyone in the universe (not).

No one with any sense can besmirch the reputation of a Billy Bishop – read The Brave Young Wings, for example, to get a taste of the war in the air 1915-18. Anyone who died, got wounded, cracked up, or somehow survived in that cauldron of death is a special hero in my books. The only argument is with the statistics and some odd details. These things were manipulated by the generals and their PR lackeys far behind the lines where they were suffering no lack of anything – there was no mud but there were clean underwear, silk sheets and booze. These people could make Donald Rumsfeld look like a beginner at fact-twisting, and they didn’t need a Blackberry (no shortage of very effective, hi-tech communicating devices in WWI). Billy Bishop certainly scored high, but not likely anywhere near 72. But it suited “Colonel Rumsfeld i/c propaganda” back there to say that Bishop did so do all that and should have a Victoria Cross. Explanations for this are in the best of books, such as mentioned above, Canadian Airmen and the First World War, etc.

Of course, the 1948 Beaver is a tremendous little workhorse. Who would say no? But not even 2000 Beavers were ever built. Meanwhile, the DC-3 or Beech 18 had been working the bush since the late 1930s, and far exceeded the Beaver in numbers alone on every continent! Then came the Cessna 180/185. Well, Beaver, please stand aside.

The ultimate bushplane in my view has to be the Antonov An-2 biplane: more than 10,000 built, service since 1947 on all continents, incalculable loads carried, current presence still in the many hundreds if not a few thousand, production life from pre-Beaver to post-Beaver, on and on. However, mention this in Canada and you make a new brigade of furious enemies wishing you every malevolence imaginable: “Puleeze, keep the facts to yourself, we Canadians prefer our myths!”

Then comes our beloved Arrow, Canada’s grandest aviation tall tale, and one that never goes away. Wonderful technology project that it was, it wasn’t to be and for all the good reasons. Even so, Arrow silliness again crops up in this April 3, 2009 Toronto Star article. Not surprisingly, the perpetrator is an academic – ironically, when it comes to history, these folks can be pretty sloppy with the facts.

In “Privatization of AECL Radioactive Issue for Ottawa”, Prof. Duane Bratt of Mount Royal College in Calgary, begins irrelevantly and erroneously by harkening back to the Arrow: “In 1959 the Diefenbaker government shut down the Arrow, the world’s most technologically advanced interceptor aircraft. Not only did it mean the demise of a uniquely Canadian high tech invention, but it also forced thousands of highly skilled scientists and engineers to leave the country.”

Well, talk about a crock of doggy doodoo (as I have commented before)! The Arrow was one of many similar advanced fighter projects underway throughout the world during the 1950s. Most of these aircraft concepts never reached production, and all the participant nations moved ahead. Only Canada created a myth out of its unsuccessful effort. Like the Arrow, all the other shelved projects had proved too costly or had been superseded by advancing science or geo-politics. (Two Cold War designs that did succeed in entering service were the superb US-built McDonnell F-4 Phantom II; and the SR-71 which, in speed alone, would leave an Arrow in its wake – so much for the generally unproven Arrow being the “mostest” of everything.)

Professor Bratt states that the Arrow cancellation “forced” ex-Avro workers to leave Canada — the alleged post-Arrow “brain drain”. However, nearly every worker worth his/her salt let go by Avro soon had a new and, often, better job in Canada. In researching history in the subsequent decades, I have interviewed many of these workers (and workers they were). Most moved quickly and naturally to other aviation or science-type employers, where they shone with their successes developing truly useful products for humanity — as opposed to fighters. (In the late 1950s, do you really think that the world needed yet another jet fighter?)

Development of the PT6 engine by Pratt & Whitney Canada, and of the
Dash 8 by de Havilland Canada are proof positive that fabulously important spin-off products resulted from the timely demise of the Arrow program. So the loss of the Arrow “forced thousands” of Canadians to flee the country in search of meaningful work, eh? In truth, but a handful of ex-Avro workers emigrated to the US or UK. Meanwhile, hundreds of the best minds behind the Arrow in its heyday circa 1952 to 1959 had been post-WWII immigrants to Canada from other nations. Now we’re talking brain drain, but into Canada.

Without these reverse brain-drain people there would have been no Avro Arrow. Canadians did not have the ability to single-handedly produce such an advanced airplane. Had it not been for WWII, they would still have been building wood and fabric airplanes by 1950. Typical of the reverse brain-drain genii were design team leader James C. Floyd from the UK; and Arrow test pilots Jan Zurakowski and “Spud” Potacki, and designer Waclaw Czerwinski, from Poland. Why is this important reality never mentioned in the Arrow nostalgia debates? Well, for one thing, it wouldn’t help book sales in Canada’s “Avro Arrow” publishing industry (there’s always a new Arrow book looming somewhere).

Bottom line on the brain drain? Canada gained immensely by draining brains from many countries in the post-WWII industrial boom, but contributed very few in terms of any outflow of brains to the US, etc. On top of that truth, some of the ex-Avro emigrants from 1959 returned later to Canada, as did James C. Floyd himself.

Some basic research into aviation history would reveal these and other facts – not as charming or exciting as our cherished myths, but true all the same.
Larry Milberry, publisher

PS … The never-ending lament for the Arrow includes one in the Montreal Gazette of January 23, 2012 reiterating the moronic old claim about John Diefenbaker, etc., and has the predictable anti-American crapola about some Washington conspiracy being behind the Arrow’s downfall, since Americans can’t stand anyone out-doing them, bla, bla, bla. Talk about pitiful! Here is what this simple-minded “reporter” says in the Gazette: “It was killed by John Diefenbaker’s government, presumably at the behest of Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower on behalf of his country’s aerospace industry (which hates competition).” Can you believe this garbage? Where does the Gazette find its muse? Maybe from the “Coast to Coast” loonie bins … or the National Enquirer?