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Wright pilots a flight back in time
by Mike Mullen

SAINT JOHN - Despite media reports to the contrary in this, its 100th anniversary year, Alexander Graham Bell's storied Silver Dart wasn't actually the first aircraft to take flight in Canada.


Photo by Cindy Wilson, Telegraph-Journal

Harold Wright talks about the old Millidgeville airport that was called the Saint John Municipal Airport during his presentation on the history of aviation at the Saint John Free Public Library on Saturday.

That honour belongs to a hot-air balloon Professor Louis Lauriat of the West Indies launched from Saint John's Barrack Green in 1840, historian Harold E. Wright told an audience of about 50 people who turned out for his illustrated, highly informative and often amusing talk drawn from 30 years of research on the city's aviation history.

"When people think of airplanes, they think of flying," Wright said. "An airplane is a aircraft, a glider is an aircraft and a balloon is an aircraft. So, if you say the first airplane to fly (north of the 49th parallel) was the Silver Dart, you're right. But if you were to say the first aircraft to fly was a balloon, that is correct.

"Flying started with the first aircraft, which was a balloon."

In fact, he noted the first balloon flight in France was in 1783, around the time the Loyalists were settling here.

Wright enchanted his audience, which included some former pilots and family members of others, for more than an hour with a seemingly endless supply of such tidbits, photos and stories that will, if all goes according to plan, end up on the pages of a 17-chapter book he hopes to send to the publishers within 18 months.

Wright, who is a battling throat cancer, has already picked a name for the book: Capt. Jimmy Wade, BEM, K.C. Irving's First Pilot, and the Saint John Story of Flying.

Wade, the legendary British-born bush pilot who grew up in Sussex Corner, was "involved in so much you can't separate the Saint John (flying) story from him and vice versa," Wright said after his talk. "(But) it will be much more than his story."

The book, like Wright's Saturday talk, will explore Saint John's four airports, ballooning, various flying clubs, the air force station, air crashes, and the stories of a colourful cast of both male and female pilots that included Wade, Scott Stirling, Bruce Carter and airmen such as Sgt. Don Peacock and Flying Officer Bill Arrowsmith.

There was female aviator Amelia Earhart's famed May 19, 1932, stopover at the old Saint John Municipal Airport in Millidgeville and wonderful photos of the Nazi airship the Hindenburg flying over Saint John in 1936 (you could even see the Olympic rings) in its glory days. It crashed and burned on May 3, 1937, in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Opening his presentation with hilarious on-screen footage of first attempt to fly from the movie version of These Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, Wright kept his audience not only informed but well-entertained from start to finish.

While he credited Lauriat with the first hot-air balloon launch in Saint John, his audience was told that the first area resident to actively take up ballooning was a John Hay of Norton, who joined the Union Army's balloon corps during the American Civil War. Ballooning, he noted, went out of fashion for a long time until Doug Shippee of Saint John became a licensed balloonist in 1981, a move that resulted in today's Sussex Balloon Fiesta.

The first record of airplane flights being offered to the public were as part of the Aug. 31-Sept. 7 annual exhibition at the Saint John Exhibition Grounds on the Lower Cove. The planes landed and took off from the mud flats at the head of Courtenay Bay.

Many may think the Millidgeville airport, built on the site of the peat bog, was the city's first. Wrong, Wright said. There was an earlier airport on Manawagonish Road. And the current Saint John Airport, opened at Clover Valley on the city's eastern outskirts in 1952, was constructed in order to entice Trans-Canada Airlines to return to the city.

For four years, from 1947 to 1951, TCA would only offer service to Saint John out of the Pennfield Airport making it, unofficially or not, the city's third municipal airport.

One of Wright's stories the audience seemed to enjoy is that, with the advent of airmail in the 1930s, Saint Johners were able to get "same-day delivery" with the mail picked up on Montreal in the morning being delivered to local homes by afternoon.

SOURCE: New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (Saint John, NB) - March 31, 2009.

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