ELLIS, Frank




Author Tags: Transportation

Frank Ellis recorded the first cross-country flight in British Columbia when Charles K. Hamilton, in a Curtiss pusher-type biplane, took off from a racecourse and followed the North Arm of the Fraser River for about 20 miles, going as far as New Westminster. Ellis, himself a pioneering aviator, was among 3,500 onlookers.

Born in England in 1896, Ellis came to Canada with his family in 1912. Two years later, he constructed and flew a biplane. In 1919 he was the first Canadian to make a parachute jump from an airplane in Canada.

In Flying Canucks, writer Peter Pigott notes of this jump that ‘the red welts left on Ellis’s body by the tightened linen straps ensured that silk would be used in future parachutes. Less than a month after his jump, parachutes would be used in an emergency situation.” Ellis’s greatest contribution to aviation was his writing.

In 1954 Ellis published Canada’s Flying Heritage, the first major study of the history of aviation in Canada, followed by In Canadian Skies in 1959 and Atlantic Air Conquest in 1976. His work “not only records the significant events of Canadian aviation but also pays tribute to the ‘forgotten flyers who flew by guess and by God or with calculating caution — for the sheer love of flying — in the early days.’”

Ellis was awarded the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada in 1972; two years later, the government of Manitoba named Ellis Bay in his honour. He died in North Van in 1979.

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Here is an article by Ellis entitled
Pioneer Flying in British Columbia, 1910-1914 / Part One: Hamilton’s Aerial Clipper does stunts over Richmond, 1910. This article is part of a long article written by Frank H. Ellis and published in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly in October of 1939.

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It is generally understood in flying circles that when reference is made to the “pioneer period” of aviation the phrase refers to the years prior to the outbreak of the Great War in1914. To most people the events of those years still seem relatively recent; but it is becoming more and more difficult to secure first-hand accounts of the happenings of the time, and efforts are being made in several countries to compile a history of early flying before it is too late.

In England a splendid exhibit has been assembled in the Science Museum, at South Kensington. In the United States National Museum, better known as the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, a very comprehensive collection of the nation’s pioneer flying relics is on display, and another collection of rare photographs and data relating to early aviation is in process of formation at the Edison Institute, at Dearborn, Michigan. Canada, too, has an exhibit pertaining to early Canadian aviation, which may be seen in the National Museum, Ottawa; but the data are woefully incomplete. The notes which follow have been compiled in an effort to add to such records and, incidentally, to write as complete an account as possible of early flying in British Columbia. For it is only fitting that the names and exploits of the staunch band of men and women who flew the fragile, unstable “flying machines” of early days should receive due recognition before time completely obliterates the little information which yet remains of many of them and their endeavours.

Although the first flight of a powered heavier-than-air machine was made in 1903, when the Wright brothers made their first successful flights at Kitty Hawk, in December, the conquest of the air progressed very slowly for several years. The first flight by an aeroplane within the Dominion of Canada did not take place until February 23, 1909. On that day the pioneer Canadian airman, John Douglas McCurdy, lifted his power driven Silver Dart off the ice of Baddeck Bay, Nova Scotia, making a flight of about half a mile at a height of some 30 feet.

It was only a year later that the first “flying machine” spread its wings and soared aloft in British Columbia. That historic event took place on Friday, March 25, 1910, the flight being made from the old Minoru Race-track, now known as Brighouse, on Lulu Island, at the mouth of the Fraser River.’ The pilot was Charles K. Hamilton, then a well-known flier. His Curtiss pusher-type biplane was shipped to Vancouver from Seattle, where, only a week before, he had crashed into a small lake, damaging his machine, but not his nerve, although he had been rendered unconscious by the impact.
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Charles K. Hamilton

Some 3,500 people were on hand to see that first flight in British Columbia. After taking off and being in the air about ten minutes, Hamilton landed safely, but had the misfortune to rip off a tire in the process. The report of the flight in the Vancouver Province stated that “There was no engine trouble, but a sudden landing was made.” No doubt the landing was only sudden in the opinion of the reporter, as it is probable that he had not witnessed an aeroplane flight before.

Hamilton made a second flight the same day. Upon this occasion he climbed steadily away from the grounds, and then, when a considerable distance separated him from the track, circled gracefully back towards the grandstand and flew directly over the judges’ box. He then rose once more and again circled the track. In an attempt at speed comparisons, an automobile was started to race the aviator; but, as Hamilton was unaware of the fact, he followed a wide circle far beyond the track, and no comparison was possible. At the completion of the flight he made a fine landing; and, according to the newspapers, every one who witnessed his flights was completely satisfied.

The Province published a very good photograph showing Hamilton flying past the grandstand at 55 miles per hour, and the caption—”Hamilton’s Aerial Clipper”—shows that his plane antedated the present-day Clippers in name, if not in airworthiness, by almost thirty years!
Charles K. Hamilton. First Air Plane Visitor to Vancouver, March 25, 1910. Photo by George A. Barrowclough (CVA Air P43)

Charles K. Hamilton. First Air Plane Visitor to Vancouver, March 25, 1910.
Photo by George A. Barrowclough (CVA Air P43)

Hamilton’s visit took place during Easter week-end, and further flights were made on the Saturday. His first flight this day (March 26, 1910) was announced as a test flight, and after taking off, he circled the track twice at a low altitude and then landed. He was in the air but five minutes. During his second flight, which was described as a speed race against a motor-car, Hamilton once again made much wider circles than the size of the track, and in consequence of this the biplane was beaten by the automobile. He then flew away to the west, rising to a height of 400 feet. Returning at a much greater height, he passed the grandstand at a “terrific” speed, and then came down and made a perfect landing.

His third flight was the outstanding one, not only of the day, but of all the flights made during his visit. After taking off from the racecourse, he followed the North Arm of the Fraser River for about 20 miles, going as far as New Westminster, and making the first cross-country flight in British Columbia—a risky piece of flying for that early date. He was completely out of sight of the watchers on Lulu Island for over ten minutes, and upon his return to the racecourse spectators crowded about, asking questions. The report in the Province continues as follows:

Everyone crowded about him, asking where he had been. “New Westminster,” came the reply. Mr. Hamilton was shaking with cold, and was immediately supplied with a stimulant. Between the chattering of his teeth he told a curious knot of spectators how he had followed the winding course of the north arm of the river, amounting to 2,500 feet; and then finding the temperature too chilly, he descended to a lower altitude, which he maintained until reaching New Westminster where he sank to within nearly 100 feet of the ground. His arrival there caused considerable interest, the streetcars stopping, while the occupants watched his evolutions. Turning just west of the bridge he began his homeward flight . . . His speed averaged about forty miles per hour, but during the course of his flight, he must at times have attained a rate of 50 miles an hour.

Easter Monday dawned with a strong westerly wind blowing, and it was very cold. In spite of these conditions Hamilton was not grounded, as many a less able airman would certainly have been, and he stayed aloft fifteen minutes during his first flight of the day, making several circuits of the track at different heights before landing.
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Grandstand at Minoru, circa 1910 (CVA371-447)

The highlight of his next flight was a mile contest against a racehorse, probably a unique event in the annals of aviation. The name of the horse was Prince Brutus, but unfortunately the name of the jockey appears to have passed into oblivion. The biplane conceded three-eighths of a mile to the horse, and the handicap proved too much for the aeroplane, for Prince Brutus and his rider made the five-eighths in the fine time of 1.7 against the 1.17 of the biplane for the mile. The latter was speedily overtaking the horse as he passed the post. Horse beats aircraft in mile race! Surely that is worthy of the attention of Mr.Ripley, of Believe It or Not fame.

At the conclusion of one of his flights that day, the airman went up to a considerable height, and then from several hundred feet dove very steeply, with his engine throttled down, making a very fine landing in the centre of the grounds without again resorting to the use of power — ample evidence that he was a master airman. This was all the more remarkable when one realizes that he had taught himself to fly. This he did at Venice, California, in a Curtiss plane purchased directly from the makers. His Aero Club of America pilot’s certificate carried the low number of 12, showing him to be a true pioneer airman.

During his stay in Vancouver Hamilton expressed the opinion that Lulu Island and surroundings were ideal areas for flying, and stated that he hoped to return some day to fly again for Vancouver people. This wish was never fulfilled. After his visit to British Columbia he travelled to the Eastern United States, and before his early death gained great renown as one of America’s leading airmen. Unlike many of the “Early Birds” he did not lose his life in an aeroplane crash. He was of slight build, and his physique gave way under the rigours of flying in all weathers in an open-type machine. He died of pneumonia some time during the winter of 1911-1912.

An item which appeared in a Vancouver newspaper about three months after Hamilton’s visit is worthy of mention, for it shows that the important part that air communication might play in the development of British Columbia was recognized even as early as 1910. It reads as follows:

If airships can be employed to connect Fort George with points on the C.P.R. a very obvious difficulty in Cariboo’s colonization will be solved. A group of capitalists particularly interested have therefore sent an agent to Berlin to patronize the new German agency of communication and also to investigate all incidental costs in connection with possible establishment of a similar airship service in Central British Columbia. If satisfactory arrangements can be made, the inauguration of aerial communications between Fort George and Ashcroft may be brought about before the advent of winter, or by next spring at latest.
Gibson Twin plane, 1910

Gibson Twin plane, 1910

With such unbounded optimism it was unfortunate that the air-minded capitalists were so far ahead of the times. However, other air-minded residents of British Columbia were developing ideas upon more practical lines, and in September, 1910, several items relating to their activities appeared in the press. The first of these was a long article in the Victoria Colonist describing an ascent made by a Mr. William Wallace Gibson in a “twinplane” of his own invention. The flight was said to have taken place on Thursday, September 8, at the Dean Farm, the present site of the Lansdowne Airport, in Victoria. According to this report, Gibson reached a height of about 20 feet and flew a distance of over 200 feet before coming to earth. Unfortunately, when he alighted “the severe concussion fractured the riding wheels” of the machine and further tests had to be postponed.

Though never a success, Gibson’s “twinplane” is of considerable interest because, so far as is known, it was the first aeroplane built in British Columbia which ever succeeded in leaving the ground. The experiments upon which its design was based had been carried on for several years. As early as July, 1909, Mr. Gibson publicly discussed his plans in an interview printed in the Colonist; and the intended features of his machine are worth noting. In the first place, it was to present the end, rather than the sides of its planes to the wind:

The machine is [intended to be] 65 feet long and 14 feet wide at its widest part. There it differs radically from all the machines hitherto made. They all present their widest part to the wind, proceeding, so to speak, sideways. I go straight ahead, like a steamboat or a fish.

In the second place, Gibson was convinced that his craft would be both safe and simple to operate. He claimed that it would possess “absolute stability,” since his experiments with models proved that it would right itself automatically if upset, and that since “no special skill or dexterity” was required to control it the machine could be handled more easily than an automobile. In view of the accident which marred his first flight, it is ironical to note that the plans for the plane included “an ingenious device by which it can alight without perceptible jar.”

Finally, Gibson had great faith in a special 4-cylinder engine of his own design, which he claimed would develop 65 horsepower, although it weighed only 222 lb. complete. The plane was to have a gasoline capacity sufficient to fly 400 miles, and the inventor “offered to bet a sceptic $1,000 … that he would fly to Seattle or Vancouver inside of a year, but the bet was not taken.” The wager is interesting, because it was offered just 18 days before Blériot made the first flight across the English Channel, on July 25, 1909.

When actual construction of his aeroplane commenced, Gibson evidently deemed it wise to resort to secrecy. The general public was skeptical about flying matters in those days, and to avoid criticism inventors frequently endeavoured to build and test their aircraft in private. With this end in view, Gibson and his helpers moved the completed “twinplane” to the aviation field late at night, but the reports in the Colonist indicate that the maneuvre did not escape notice.

Several residents of the neighbourhood of Mount Tolmie witnessed Mr. Gibson in his initial trials. [These were evidently ground trials.] The final trial was the most successful, when the breaking of the wheels occurred. This flight was not witnessed by anyone as far as can be learned.

This latter statement throws some doubt upon what actually took place, and from the historical point of view the lack of witnesses is regrettable. It is also most unfortunate that neither a photograph nor a drawing of Gibson’s machine has come to light, as it was evidently a craft of extraordinary design. Its actual length was 54 feet, instead of the intended 65, but in most respects it seems to have followed the plans outlined in 1909. The long description printed in the Colonist reads in part as follows:

It is composed of two planes, one behind the other, both triangular. [Another account states that each of these planes was 20 feet long and 8 feet wide.] These planes are fixed, the machine rising or falling according to the elevation or depression of a triangular plane of cedar which is worked by a lever and forms the nose of the craft. There are also a couple of other cedar planes beneath the triangular canvas ones which aid materially in lifting. Altogether he has 330 square feet of lifting service [surface] as against 160 of the Blériot monoplane.

The remarkable feature of the Gibson twin-plane is that owing to its design it is automatically stable and its stability is increased by the fact that the engine is suspended in the centre of the airship beneath the planes. The propellers are fixed, one in front and one behind the engine…. The operator sits in front and above the front propellor and thus is not incommoded by the wind made by the revolving blades. This removes much of the discomfort experienced by other airmen owing to the coldness developed by the wind from the propellors. The craft is steered by a rudder somewhat of the same shape as the rudder of a racing shell and is made of varnished cedar.

Complete with engine the craft weighed 500 lb. The statement that the propellors were “fixed” means, perhaps, that they were connected directly to the engine by shaft or gear and were not chain-driven, as in the Wright machine of the same date; but unfortunately these and many other details are far from clear.

The special motor Gibson intended to use proved unsatisfactory in bench tests, and the engine actually used in the plane was ordered in the spring of 1910 from Hutchinson Brothers & Company, of Victoria. It was a 6-cylinder, air-cooled motor which developed 40 horsepower at a speed of 800 revolutions per minute. Complete with fittings it weighed 200 lb.

A fortnight was needed to repair the damage suffered by Gibson’s machine at the conclusion of its first flight, and it was not until September 22 that the Plimley Bicycle Company completed the required “set of wheels,” or “supporting trucks,” as the new landing gear was termed in the press. Two days later the Colonist printed an item which shows that there were two other aeroplanes under construction in British Columbia at this time, one in Victoria and the other in Vancouver. The former was being built by a Mr. F. Watts, in the shops of the Western Motor & Supply Company, on Broad Street. It was stated to be of the Blériot monoplane type, and the account continued:

The wooden frame is practically complete and Mr. Watts is at work on the engine, a three-cylinder machine with a vertical and two side cylinders. The planes of calico on a wooden frame will be 28 feet across.

Nothing further seems to be known about the Watts aeroplane, and it may never even have been completed, as reports of flights, or attempts to fly it, are lacking.

The Western Motor & Supply Company had also been asked to supply an engine for the machine under construction in Vancouver, and a 3-cylinder English Humber engine was ordered from the firm by the builders of the plane, Messrs. McMullen and Templeton. Other details recorded are as follows:

The machine built by the Vancouver men is of the Glen Curtis [sic] type, with some additional features added by the builders. It is a biplane with planes 28 feet [long] and five feet wide, and each plane will be covered with a special rubberized silk. The operator’s seat will be below the level of the lower plane which is different from that of the Curtis machine. With the motor installed the aeroplane will weigh 400 pounds.

More will be heard of this machine later. Meanwhile we must return to W. W. Gibson and the second flight he made in his twinplane, on September 24, 1910. The best account of the event available reads in part as follows:

Mr. Gibson left the shed with his plane about 4 o’clock yesterday after noon and starting his engine on a slight incline rose to the air about fifty feet from the shed. Passing the shelter of a clump of trees a strong crosswind was encountered with the result that the aeroplane was drifted dangerously near some trees, Mr. Gibson not using his rudder. He shut off his engine to avoid collision and came down, but unfortunately his wheels were not equipped with brakes and the momentum drove the aeroplane into an oak tree at the rate of about 25 miles an hour. The slight damage which occurred as a result of the contact with the tree indicated strongly the substantial structure of the machine. The damage, apart from the splitting of a couple of wooden planes and the buckling of a wooden lateral truss, was confined to injury of two of the wheels. Repairs will be effected within the course of a few days and another flight will then be made.

In discussing the flight, Mr. Gibson said he was under the disadvantage of having to learn the art of aviation by experience, there being no “flying schools “ in British Columbia. His flights have demonstrated to his satisfaction that the machine is all that is required and all that is necessary to demonstrate it is practice in “airmanship.”

Apparently, damage to the twinplane was greater than was thought at the time, as further experiments appear to have been abandoned, and a considerable time passes before Gibson reappears on the aviation scene. Thus it was that flying came to British Columbia, in the year 1910.

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For more information on Frank H. Ellis, see http://earlyaviators.com/eellis and Flying Canucks: Famous Canadian Aviators by Peter Pigott (Toronto: Dundurn, 1996).

[BCBW 2014]