4 Apr 2014

William Wallace Gibson and the first Canadian-built airplane

By Claire Eamer

On February 23, 1909, John McCurdy made the first powered flight in Canada, flying the Silver Dart at Alexander Graham Bell's home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. The Silver Dart was designed by McCurdy and built in the United States, where Bell and his associates had been working on powered flight. So - while it was the first powered flight in Canada - the Silver Dart wasn't the first Canadian-built powered airplane.

A full-scale replica of the Gibson Twin-plane at the BC Aviation Museum.
That honour belongs to a peculiar-looking, kite-like airplane designed, built, and flown by Victoria flight enthusiast William Wallace Gibson just a year and a half after the Silver Dart's flight. Gibson, a former farmer and businessman from the Regina area, had been quietly experimenting with kites and elastic-powered airplanes for several years. He had also designed an air-cooled engine especially for his experimental plane and had it built in Victoria.

On September 8, 1910, Gibson powered up what he called the Gibson Twin-plane, rolled across a pasture near Victoria (now a school sports field), and lifted off the ground for less than eight metres. He had been nervous about whether the plane would work and afraid of being mocked, so he didn't tell anyone about the experiment. But it flew!

Gibson's engine drove two propellers, one at each end.
So Gibson invited witnesses and planned a second, formal flight. On September 24, 1910, he took off again. This time the plane flew 200 feet (just over 60 metres). The flight was a clear success, but it came to a bad end. A cross-wind pushed the plane towards an oak tree, and Gibson had to make a hasty landing. With no brakes and limited control, he rolled helplessly across the rough ground and straight into the tree. Gibson was thrown clear, but the plane was a wreck.

That didn't stop Gibson. He designed a new plane with multiple narrow wings and called it the Gibson Multi-plane. It was powered by the same engine he had designed for the Twin-plane. Then he went off in search of wide open spaces to test the new plane. He found his space in Calgary, and on August 12, 1911, he was ready.

The Multi-plane was piloted by his assistant, Alex Japp. It took off safely, reached an altitude of 100 feet (over 30 metres), and cruised for over a mile (about 1.7 kilometres) - just one of several successful flights it made that day. Unfortunately, the Gibson Multi-plane came to grief on landing, just as its predecessor had. A last hard landing on rough terrain was too much for it, and the plane broke up.
The pilot perched in the tiny seat below the arrow.

Gibson lived until 1965, long enough to see airplanes and air travel become a major industry, but that flight in Calgary was the end of his experiments with flight. However, it wasn't the end of his planes.

A full-scale replica of the Gibson Twin-plane dangles from the ceiling of the British Columbia Aviation Museum near Victoria. The original engine Gibson used in both planes is in the collection of the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa. And there's a model of the Twin-plane in the National Air Museum in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few links with more of Gibson's story:




All photos by Claire Eamer.

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