by Doreen Marion Gee

Roll over Howard Hughes. We can brag about our own aviation celebrity right here in James Bay! Back in 1910, William Wallace Gibson designed and constructed the first successful Canadian aircraft engine. He also built the plane itself. This brilliant inventor carved his name in history while living in our community. He adds a touch of greatness to JameWilliam Wallace Gibson's "Twinplane" 1910s Bay's past. But the life and antics of this interesting man are the stuff of Hollywood movies.

On your next stroll around James Bay, check out 146 Clarence. This house, built in 1883, was the residence of William Wallace Gibson where he designed his engine and airplanes. After making a fortune in the coal mining business, Gibson turned his talents to inventing. He is credited with the design and construction of the first successful Canadian airplane engine and the first Canadian airplane to actually fly. Quite an achievement for a man with no formal training in aeronautics design! Gibson constructed his 40-horsepower gasoline-propelled engine at his James Bay address in 1910. And he built his "Twinplane" there. His innovative flying machine had sets of wings both in front and behind the pilot. Its top speed was about 64 kilometres an hour.

Cameras! Action! The scene is from the first week of September, 1910: A lone figure stealthily drags his flying machine at night from his home on Clarence to a farm near Mount Tolmie. Then he secretly wheels the huge contraption into a large tent hidden from sight. At sunset and sunrise, he flies his amazing machine into the great blue yonder over the fields near Mount Tolmie, wings flapping in the wind. Gibson wants to hide his creation until he knows his plane can fly. But it doesn't quite work out that way. Pass the popcorn please.

In those days aviation was in its infancy and our skies were empty. ItWilliam Wallace Gibson was virtually impossible to miss the sight of a giant flapping flying machine dwarfing the clouds. Gibson's secret was out! According to the local Daily Times of September 9, 1910, "...his flight this week was seen by several people who wondered what the incredible moving thing in the air could be, as they saw it sailing out across the fields toward Mount Tolmie". Twinplane's second flight over Dean farm was the most successful: "Reaching an extreme height of about 20 feet from Terra Firma, Mr. William Wallace Gibson...flew his 40-horsepower Twinplane for over 200 feet without descending to the earth," reports the other newspaper, the Daily Colonist.

Gibson eventually left the Island for flatter terrain in Ladner, Kamloops and finally Calgary. Another of his planes, the "Multi-plane", with four narrow sprucewood wings, flew deftly in 1911 near Calgary before being wrecked in a crash. Unfortunately his aviation career was cut short by an unscrupulous promoter trying to get all the glory for Gibson's work.

The BC Aviation Museum in Sidney has a replica of Gibson's plane and his original engine is in the National Aviation Museum in Ottawa. William Wallace Gibson never got the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. Nearly a century later, we should be proud of this incredible man who was the very first person to give Canadians wings and go where no man has gone before. Plus─he made his magnificent engine and flying machine right here in James Bay!

 

TO MY READERS: I was thrilled and honored to win second prize in the creative non-fiction category of the 2009 annual writing contest held by the Victoria Writers' Society. My piece titled "Angels in Hell", was about an awesome organization here in Victoria called Wear 2 Start who provide beautiful free clothing to low income women so they can ace that job interview (and get that dream job). Along with the other winning entries, my piece will be published in the December issue of Island Writer Magazine. You are invited to our book launch and Christmas Party on December 5, 2009, from 7:30 to 10:00 PM at the Orange Hall, 1620 Fernwood Road. We will be reading from our works and it should be great fun!