The Colour of Aerodromes



For the Centennial of Flight, a replica Silver Dart was flown at Baddeck, Nova Scotia on 22 February 2009 by retired astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason.


At an early date (1892), Dr. Alexander Graham Bell became interested in flying. For many years after he performed experiments with numerous and varied kites, some motorized, and some even designed to carry a man.

Bell also designed and experimented with propellers, with various diameters and pitch, and even one of variable pitch.

On 30 September 1907, while together with some like-minded friends, and at the suggestion by his wife Mabel, the Aerial Experiment Association was founded. Mabel Bell even funded the idea with a gift of $20,000.00. The founding members included Bell, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, an American motorcycle manufacturer, John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, a Canadian engineer, Frederick Walker (Casey) Baldwin, another Canadian engineer, and Lieutenant Thomas Etholen Selfridge, an American in the United States Army. The mandate of the Association was simply “To get a man into the air”.

In vogue at the time was the British word “aeroplane”. Bell disliked this term because “They are not aeroplanes, for they have not a flat surface”. He used the term “aerodrome” for his flying machines. The British used “aerodrome” to describe what we today call an airport, which is an American term, like “airplane”.

Drome No. 1 was designed by Selfridge and flown by Baldwin. Its engine was designed by Curtiss, using one of his light motorcycle engines. Up until this time, lateral control of aircraft was done by shifting the pilot’s weight left or right, to turn the aircraft left or right. Also employed was “wing warping”, which twisted the wing in order to turn. Drome No.1 had small, winged appendages at the wing tips to turn the aircraft. When Henry Farman, a French aircraft designer, learned of them, he called them “ailerons”, which in French means “little wings”. The Association had invented ailerons!

The wings of Drome No. 1 needed a substance which would cover the structure and maintain its shape to provide the lift necessary to fly. Silk was a good fabric to use because it was light and so tightly woven that air would skim over it instead of though it (air-proof). The canopy of parachutes and most hot air balloons are made of silk to “hold” the air. The Association used red silk to cover the wings of Drome No. 1 and it became known as “Red Wing”.

Drome No. 2, designed and flown by Baldwin, was covered with white nainsook which is a soft lightweight muslin (a course cotton fabric). It was called “White Wing”.

Drome No. 3 was designed by Curtiss and was also covered with cotton. They had flown it several times with no difficulties, but early one morning they tried to fly it again. After several tries, it just would not get off the ground! There had been a heavy dew that morning and it had soaked into the cotton fabric. This water had added so much extra weight to the machine that it just could not take off. To keep the cotton dry, the Association made a mixture of paraffin, gasoline and ochre, an earthy, red iron ore used as a pigment. When brushed on the cotton fabric, it prevented the water from soaking the cotton fabric. They had invented “dope”, which, in advanced forms like nitrate dope and butyrate dope, is still used today for fabric covered aircraft. Due to the ochre, Drome No. 3 changed to a rusty red colour and was named “June Bug”.


The “June Bug”, fitted with floats and rechristened “Loon”, being tried out in Dec 1908.


The June Bug was later fitted with two pontoons and was called “Loon”. Its conversion created the world’s first hydroplane. Initially, it never got airborne because the suction created by the motion of the pontoons over the water held the machine on the water. Later, in 1911, they invented a “step” on the bottom of the pontoon to break the suction of the water, and this solved the problem.


The Silver Dart, piloted by John McCurdy, made its historic flight over Lake Bras d’Or, Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on 23 February 1909.


Drome No. 4 was designed and flown by McCurdy. It was covered with rubberized silk balloon-cloth and doped linen. The Goodyear Company developed the silver-coloured rubber compound (dope) used to seal the fabric covering. Her name, of course, was “Silver Dart”.

With its flight on 23 February 1909 from Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the Silver Dart was the first heavier-than-air flight in Canada and the British Empire. Sadly, the Aerial Experiment Association was disbanded on 31 March 1909. They had accomplished their mission.

All of the aerodromes were built and flown at Hammondsport, New York, where the Curtiss factory was located. In fact, the Silver Dart was flown there prior to being shipped to Canada. It is interesting to note that both Curtiss and the Wright Brothers started off with bicycle shops. Later, a Curtiss flying machine was covered with a very bright yellow-gold silk. You know it had to be named “Golden Flyer”.