by Silverback Jon (Gilead Silverbacks)
I told this story to some strangers we had breakfast with yesterday and they said “You have to write that down, and share it with people!” So I shall. SB Jon
Thirty years ago I created a miniseries on the life of Alexander Graham Bell entitled “The Sound and the Silence.” It was bought by TNT and airs periodically through the decades.
Everyone knows about the telephone. Most know that his mother and his wife were both deaf, and that his empathy for them led to an obsession with sound, which led to his invention of the telephone. Many know of his work with Helen Keller, his hiring of Annie Sullivan, and his devotion to teaching deaf people not to sign, but to speak. See, Marlee Matlin and her continuation of the Bell legacy. The final shot in my movie dollies in on his gravestone in Baddeck, Nova Scotia and reads simply: “Alexander Graham Bell. Teacher of the Deaf.” That’s it. Nothing more.
What is less known about a great man was his contribution to aviation. Before Kitty Hawk, Bell designed an airplane known as the Silver Dart. He didn’t fly it because he thought a plane that could not be steered (Wright Brothers) was of little use. So he and his team worked on flaps that could be used for that purpose.
One cold, snowy, winter day on the frozen lake outside his home in Nova Scotia, an American from Keuka Lake named M. Curtis took off, flew and steered the Silver Dart for one mile, and landed safely. A kinescope of that historic event exists, and we had it in our possession. It was very important to the creatives that we fold the real footage into our film. But how?
Turns out that a burly Scotsman whose name I can’t recall had spent thirty years of his life building an exact replica of the Silver Dart, which was now housed in the Bell Museum in Baddeck (which also shows our movie on a continuous loop). We asked him if we could “borrow” the plane, and he agreed.
Our idea was to tow the plane across the frozen ice, and then cut to the actual footage of the actual flight. The problem was, how do we match the weather and the conditions. The universe interceded. On the scheduled morning, I awakened to snow. The exact type of day, the exact amount of snow, on the exact frozen lake where the Dart took off.
The entire town of Baddeck stood on the lake as we prepared. Bell was and is a huge source of pride to these proud people. The man who built the replica, front and center.
We did a few rehearsals of towing the plane over the ice. At one point the stuntman pulled me aside and said that it felt like the plane wanted to take off (it had no engine). He told me that if we towed a little faster, the plane WOULD take off, and that would be a much more dramatic match to the existing footage. Then he would glide back down. Worked for me.
With three cameras rolling, we were ready for the scene. The snow was perfect. Everything was perfect. And down the ice we went. The Silver Dart, as predicted, lifted off. And then went a little higher. And then went higher still. The towing truck stopped. The plane jerked a little to the right, caught a wind gust…AND PLUNGED HEADFIRST INTO THE ICE.
Catastrophe. This beautiful replica, a man’s life’s work was in pieces. The stuntman wasn’t moving. We rushed over as he eventually climbed from the wreckage with a grotesquely broken arm. He was smiling. Stuntmen are wired differently than the rest of us. “Did you get it? Did you get the shot.” Oh, yeah, we got it.
I looked to the shore where hundreds of people stood in kind of disbelief. A lone snowmobile headed across the ice towards…me. I knew without knowing who was in that snowmobile. The man whose plane I just destroyed. I prepared my excuses, my apologies. I was ready to kneel down and take my beating (he was a Scotsman).
The man arrived with tears in his eyes. Who could blame him? I mumbled my apologies. He said, “Forget about that. I can rebuild her in a year.” And then he said something that has stayed with me, everyone else who was there, and now you for the rest of time.
As he hugged me, he said…
You and Silverback Jon are kindred spirits. I’ll encourage him to read some of your stories from the Digest.
I have to clarify some of the statements reported in the article “She Flew.” It alludes that the Silver Dart was designed by Bell prior to the the Wright Bros Flyer and that the Wright Bros plane was somehow uncontrollable. The Silver Dart was built by the Aerial Experiment Association that Bell formed. The principal designer was a man named McCurdy. American Glenn Curtis developed the engine. The plane was built and flown in New York in 1909, six years after Kitty Hawk. The Wright Bros had been flying for several years by then with complete control. After it’s first flight, the Silver Dart was dismantled and delivered to Nova Scotia where it flew and became the first flight in Canada.
Thanks for this additional information, SB Ron!