Did you know the first non-stop flight from mainland Canada to England began at Wasaga Beach in 1934, right here in Southwestern, Ontario?
Other historical aviation firsts happened in earlier years. For example, J.A.D. McCurdy, took to the air in the Silver Dart at Baddeck, Nova Scotia in1909.
In 1928, William S. Stultz, Lew Gordon, with Amelia Earhart as passenger, flew from Trepassey, Newfoundland, non-stop in a hydroplane. In 1932, Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic from Conception Bay North, now called Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. The above people were Americans, and Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949.
In 1933, British Captain James Mollison and his wife Amy Johnson, also a pilot, brought their plane to Wasaga Beach to fly their aircraft Seafarer 11 to Bagdad. They wanted to beat the record of two French pilots who flew about 5,650 miles non-stop. The British destination was Bagdad, about 6,300 miles away.
Wasaga Beach was chosen for many reasons. It is the longest fresh water sandy beach in the world, nine miles of pure sand. There are longer salt water beaches. Since most of the aircraft were small at that time, most airstrips were short. Some planes from Camp Borden were using the beach so it was established as an airstrip.
It was a summer day when the Seafarer 11 was about to take off. The beach had been hand picked of stones and debris. With nearly everyone in Wasaga standing by to witness history being made, the Seafarer 11 raced down the airstrip twice without becoming airborne. Once, a cross-wind nearly flipped it over. On the third attempt it got about 100 feet off the ground then fell back down, buckling the under-carriage, no one was hurt. The Mollisons, then gave up on the project, leaving the plane at Wasaga.
Over the winter, two Canadian pilots James Ayling and Leonard Reid purchased the plane and re-named it “Trail of the Caribou”.
In those days, all planes were small, capable of carrying two to four people at most. These planes also had small fuel tanks, which meant they would not carry enough fuel to cross the Atlantic.
With the help of De Haviland engineers, the plane was repaired. The Trail of the Caribou was a four-seater, twin engine plane with a fifty foot wing. Two of the seats were removed to reduce weight.
The Collingwood Board of Trade, along with beach residents arranged to level the beach area for a longer distance. The plane with extra fuel had extra weight and needed more distance to take off.
Boys and girls were out picking up stones and debris to help clear the beach. One source said a road grader was used, but another source of information said long, squared, barn beams, hauled by four large Percheron horses were used to level the sand. The beams, being much longer, didn’t leave a ridge in the sand. The road grader, being only six or eight feet in width, would have to make more than one trip down the beach and would leave a ridge in between each trip. Four miles of the beach was prepared for the runway.
After much anticipation, on August 8 the take-off was scheduled to begin at 06.12 hours. Similar to the Mollisons’ experience the year before, there were strong crosswinds blowing in off Georgian Bay, making take-off more dangerous. The plane ran about a mile, gaining speed before it slowly rose into the air. After a wide sweep across Georgian Bay to gain altitude, it flew back over the people on the beach and headed east, destination Bagdad.
The people watched till it was out of sight. Then came the long wait until word came back on the radio on August 9 that the Trail of the Caribou landed in Heston, Middlesex, England. It had been in the air 30 hours 55 minutes. It was as thrilling to the people of Wasaga back in 1934 as seeing a space flight on television was to a later generation.
G. Ray Gibson collected information from the flight log from Ayling and Reid, which is quoted in the following paragraphs.
After the final inspection and loading of the aircraft and in addition to the standard 60-gallon fuel tanks on the plane, a 600-gallon tank was strapped under the fuselage at the center of gravity of the aircraft. The engineers from De Haviland made their check-ups and the plane was ready to fly.
The crew waved to the sightseers. The plane rolled slowly down the beach at first, gaining speed as it went along. At approximately one mile it started to take off at 06.12, Canadian Standard Time. A strong breeze was blowing across the beach which the crew corrected before they slowly turned towards the lake.
They headed east towards Peterborough, then along the St. Lawrence River. Many people saw it enroute, particularly near Quebec City. It was last sighted as it flew over Bell Isle Strait at 16.25 hours
(4:15 pm). The two pilots planned to captain the craft alternately at three-hour intervals. After the first two intervals, they reduced the cycle to two hour shifts.
At first they experienced trouble setting the engine throttles, to run the aircraft at an economical cruising speed. They also had the benefit of a tail wind. On the eastern part of the Atlantic, they ran into a heavy fog bank which forced them to fly blind for about eight hours before they sighted the Atlantic through breaks in the clouds. While climbing up out of the fog banks, they experienced carburetor icing on both engines. This caused the engines to operate with throttles frozen open, thus increasing fuel consumption from 10 gallons per hour to 17 or 18 gallons per hour.
Ayling and Reid realized that due to the fast-diminishing fuel, that the long distance record could not be made and decided to settle for being the first airmen to fly non-stop from Canada to Britain.
About 24 hours after leaving Wasaga Beach they sighted Ireland. Fighting head winds, behind their estimated arrival time and short of fuel, they decided to land in Heston Airport. They were pleased to note they were exactly on the course they had plotted for the flight considering they were forced to fly the aircraft blind for a major portion across the Atlantic.
Those pilots showed a high standard of professionalism, their navigation superb. The flight mapped an Air Bridge to Europe, used during the Second World War.
For some years after the historic flight, many small planes took advantage of the long natural runway offered by Wasaga Beach. As motor traffic increased some casual escapades occurred, making it dangerous for everyone. The only planes that land there now are equipped with pontoons.
On August 28, 1958, a stone cairn commemorating the historic flight was unveiled with due ceremony at the entrance to Nancy Island Historic Site.
Many Thanks to the following for information used in this article: Friends of the Nancy Island Historic Site – Wasaga Beach; www.simcoe.com; Andrew Armitage – Owen Sound; Harold Culham – Wasaga Beach. Historian and voluteer at Wasaga.