Our thanks to the Stratford Heritage Sub-Committee for bringing this story together.....



First Canadian Transatlantic Flight Takes Off from Tea Hill, Stratford

PART I

Just before supper on September 13, 1930, Reginald MacLean and his cousin Alfred McNeill were returning from a Saturday afternoon swim at MacRae’s shore at Tea Hill. As they approached the top of the farm, the boys were amazed at an airplane landing a short distance away. They approached the aircraft and saw two occupants dressed in caps, goggles, tunics, and breeches. One of the two men from the plane asked the boys where they were, and the boys replied that this was Tea Hill, Prince Edward Island.

The aircraft was a Bellanca monoplane, christened Columbia, and piloted by Capt. Erroll Boyd and navigator, Lieut. Harry Connor. Captain Boyd, a native of Toronto, was a celebrated pilot of the Great War. In fact, Boyd learned to fly under the tutelage of John Alcock , who was to gain fame with Brown in 1919 for the first nonstop Atlantic crossing. The second occupant was Lieut. Connors, noted to be one of the most talented navigators in the United States.

Image of plane and 3 people

Bellanca monoplane Columbia at Tea Hill, Stratford (1930). Photo courtesy of Aggi-Rose Reddin.

The pair of aviators, Boyd and Connors, left Montreal early that morning. Their intended destination was Harbour Grace, Newfoundland en route to England to attempt the first Canadian transatlantic flight. At first, Erroll Boyd had planned his transatlantic flight to take off from Old Orchard Beach, Maine where the hard, wet sand would be ideal. However, he had a change of mind; since Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic from United States, Boyd decided to start his flight from his native Canada.

The plane was suited with the latest in navigation instruments including a sextant, aero-chronometer, various compasses, a Sperry artificial horizon, inclinometer, thermometer, and tachometer. It was the very plane that three years earlier had carried the first transatlantic passenger, just two weeks after Lindbergh’s famous flight. Captain Erroll Boyd expressed his confidence in the aircraft: “She’s the same ship that took Chamberlin and Levine across and she’s just the ship to do it again”.
In advance of the flight, the Columbia was rechristened the Maple Leaf in honour of Canada and the song “The Maple Leaf Forever”. Despite history-in-the-making, Boyd received little monetary backing due to the onset of the Great Depression. With minimal financial support, Boyd and Connor took off, leaving behind Montreal, as well as some unpaid bills. 

Montreal to Tea Hill

The journey began from St. Hubert Airport in Montreal just after 8:30 am. For six hours the plane flew through continuous rain until they were well over New Brunswick. Flight navigator Harry Connor recorded: “the ceiling was 1000 ft. to 1500 ft. accompanied by strong head winds and rain. Visibility was poor, but due to the skillful piloting of Capt. Boyd we managed to ‘sneak’ through the mountains. Personally, I much prefer flying over oceans to mountains in such weather!”

The fliers circled over Charlottetown at 3:15 pm, the first city of any size since leaving Montreal. They continued to East Point and onto Cape Breton. Averaging a speed of 80 miles per hour in the face of prevailing headwinds, the flyers were concerned about a night landing in Newfoundland at an unlit airport. So, an hour after passing over Charlottetown, the pair decided to turn around. “The flat land of the Island looked good so we decided to come back,” Boyd later commented. Boyd and Connor made their unplanned landing at Tea Hill at 5:30 pm. 

PEI Welcome Fliers

It wasn’t long before a small crowd gathered at the landing site. Among the curious was Dr. J. S. Jenkins of Charlottetown’s Upton Farm. Jenkins invited Boyd and Connor to stay with him and his wife Louise at their home, where he hosted a welcome party late into the night. News of Boyd and Connor’s unexpected arrival on PEI spread far and wide. Even a South Carolina newspaper reported the Tea Hill landing in a front-page story. 

Upon arriving on PEI, Boyd and Connor were distressed to learn that their flight manager was being held by the Montreal police for non-payment of the pair’s hotel bill - a bill made larger by Navigator Harry Connor’s newly acquired suit that he had charged to the room. Eventually, the financial situation was resolved to satisfaction, while a Charlottetown haberdasher presented Capt. Erroll Boyd with a new outfit so that the pilot was “no longer shabbier than his navigator.”

Boyd and Connor intended to spend just one night on PEI, however, weather conditions on Sunday were unfavorable for continuing the flight to Harbour Grace. Warnings came from both Toronto and Halifax to stay put until forecast conditions improved.

Boyd and Connor made the most of their time on PEI. On Sunday afternoon, they paid a visit to PEI’s Lieutenant Governor, F.R. Heartz, and were officially welcomed by Charlottetown’s mayor. That evening, the pair were dinner guests of Dr. Jenkins.

While Boyd and Connor enjoyed Charlottetown’s social scene, the monoplane remained in the field at Tea Hill. A police officer was stationed to guard the plane, and soon discovered that he had to erase the names of some visitors who had left their mark on the aircraft. Later in the week, Boyd and Connors inspected the monoplane and found the mechanism to be in perfect condition. They took extra precaution to anchor the plane and protect it from the elements.

On Thursday afternoon, Boyd and Connor enjoyed a cruise in Hillsborough Bay. And on Friday, their 7th day on PEI, they were guests at the Rotary luncheon. The pair expressed their appreciation of the courtesy and hospitality shown them during their stay.

A member of the Jenkins family recalled that their two guests were always supposed to depart “the next day”. Dutifully, each evening, Louise Jenkins would prepare sandwiches of peanut butter, bacon and whole wheat bread for Boyd and Connor to take with them on the next leg of their flight.

With the passing of each day, the risk of bad weather over the Atlantic increased. One weather expert suggested that Boyd and Connor stay on PEI, postponing the flight until the following spring. Many years later Boyd wrote that he and Connor had considered the idea of staying; however, “after several days of reveling in this hospitality, Harry ran afoul of one of the town’s social debutantes, so I decided it would be wise to make a quick departure.”

PART II

Leaving Canadian Soil

On Tuesday, September 23, a full ten days after their arrival, Erroll Boyd and Harry Connor were about to leave Canadian soil for Harbour Grace, Newfoundland - the next leg of the first Canadian transatlantic flight.

“We were loath to leave the beautiful girls of PEI behind, but will return there upon the completion of this flight,” wrote Harry Connor in the flight log book. The make-shift airfield at Tea Hill was extended by 500 feet by the removal of a fence. Finally, a report of fine weather from St. John’s was the deciding factor in permitting the departure.

Dr. and Mrs. Jenkins were the last to bid them God-speed. The Columbia hopped off from MacRae’s field at 12:48 pm. “Taxiing over the undulating surface of the field the monoplane slipped gently into the air and began a slow climb. After circling the field in farewell salutation to the little group who gathered to bid the airmen goodbye, the plane circled over Charlottetown and finally sped away to the north-east”.

Stayover in Harbour Grace

Boyd and Connor arrived in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland without incident. Again, however, they faced delays in the final leg to England due to unfavorable weather over Newfoundland and the eastern Atlantic. On October 9, the weather conditions were more favorable than at any time during the past two weeks, but still not entirely favorable. Morning fog blanketed the landscape as the plane left the Harbour Grace runway shortly past noon.”

Transatlantic Crossing

The first challenge facing the aviators was headwinds upon leaving St. John’s; “then came darkness, rain squalls and fog. We didn’t know whether to stay below the clouds or climb above them, but we stayed below as long as we could.” An attempt to fly higher was cut short when the temperature at the higher altitude approached freezing, raising concern of ice forming on the wings. An hour after darkness, they experienced an electrical failure and had to use the emergency flashlight to energize the phosphoric material on the flight instruments. Later, Boyd recalled: “Boy, it was dark! I felt as though I was piloting a car in a coal mine.” One item left untouched during the flight was a silver flask of brandy given to the fliers by Dr. Jenkins. As Boyd rightly stated, it would have been “as deadly as a dozen sleeping pills.”

About noon the next day, the fliers made a terrifying discovery. The pipe to their reserve fuel tank was clogged. The main fuel tank was rapidly used up. “We watched it go, counting drop by drop, not knowing what was going to happen and whether we could down in the sea or not.” In view of the dwindling fuel supply, Boyd tried to align the aircraft with an ocean vessel sighted in the distance, just in case. “Then we picked up that Island.”

PART III

Transatlantic Crossing

When they sighted land, Boyd dumped the reserve tank as a precaution against explosion in preparation for a beach landing. Although it was high tide, Boyd set the monoplane down on the sloping beach between two streams on Tresco, one of England’s Scilly Islands, stopping within a few inches of the water's edge and only 200 feet from where the landing gear first touched the soft sand. Starting out with over 800 gallons of fuel, only about four gallons of usable fuel remained. Navigator Harry Connor later said, "I didn't think any human being could land a ship on that narrow strip of beach." The following day, after refueling and minor repairs, Boyd and Connor took off for Croyden, just south of London.

Celebrated Heroes

On October 11, Capt. Erroll Boyd of Toronto and Lieut. Harry Connor landed at Croydon aerodrome at 3:35 pm local time, completing their transatlantic flight. They were met by thousands of cheering on-lookers. Boyd was the first Canadian to pilot an airplane across the Atlantic. The front-page headline in Charlottetown’s Guardian proclaimed, “Intrepid Airmen Reach Their Goal.” The Lieutenant Governor of PEI sent the following cablegram to the aviators: “Congratulations from all your Island friends”. Boyd and Connor sent a cable in reply, “Allow us to thank you for your cable of congratulations. We miss the hospitality of you and our friends in Charlottetown and trust that the time may be short before seeing you again.” Even the Prime Minister dispatched a cablegram of gratulations: “On behalf of the Government and people of Canada we heartily congratulate you on being the first Canadians to fly across the Atlantic and rejoice to hear of your safe arrival”. Another honour was an audience with the Prince of Wales. Boyd and Connor met with the prince for about 40 minutes, mostly discussing aviation.

On November 21, back in Montreal where just two months earlier the pair had been hounded by creditors, Capt. J. Erroll Boyd, first Canadian airman to fly the Atlantic, and Lieut. Harry Conner, flight navigator, received a heroes’ welcome.

Newspaper clipping   Front Page News: Charlottetown Guardian, October 11, 1930

The Plane: past, future that never was, and what became of it?

The famous monoplane Columbia was built in 1925 in Newcastle, Delaware by the Bellanca Corporation. In late 1926, the monoplane came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the property of an enterprising Charles Lindbergh. The Columbia was Lindbergh’s first choice for his epic New York to Paris flight. With a signed cheque in-hand, Lindbergh was set to return to St. Louis with the Bellanca monoplane, which he would re-christen the Spirit of St. Louis. Only a last-minute stipulation placed by the plane’s owner scuttled the deal, forcing Lindbergh to commission the construction of a new plane.

While Lindbergh’s Sprit of St. Louis hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, what became of the Columbia, rechristened Maple Leaf? Unfortunately, the plane was destroyed in a hangar fire at the Bellanca factory in Newcastle, Delaware, on January 25, 1934. The sole remains are housed in the National Air and Space Museum in the form of an ashtray fashioned from the gas tank. 

-The End-

Coming Soon

The Town of Stratford’s Heritage Committee will be unveiling an interpretive panel at Tea Hill Park this year in recognition of the 90th anniversary of Canada’s first trans-Atlantic flight. Stay tuned for details.


 


 

1  Letter to the editor, “I witnessed this event” Guardian, 23 Sept 2005, p.
2 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Sept 1930, p. 1.
3 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, by Ross Smyth. Published by General Store Publishing House, Ont., 1997, p. 2.
4 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Sept 1930, p. 3.
5 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, p. 77.
6 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Sept 1930, p. 3.
7 Charlottetown Guardian, 24 Sept 1930, p. 3.
8 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, pp. 80-81.
9 Harbour Grace Airport Log, by Harry Connor. Found at http://www.planecrashgirl.ca/2017/11/09/columbia-nx237/
10 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Sept 1930, p. 3.
11 Spartan Herald, 15 September 1930, p. 1.
12 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, pp. 83-84.
13 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Sept 1930, p. 1.
14 Charlottetown Guardian, 16 Sept 1930, p. 1.
15 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Sept 1930, p.3.
16 Charlottetown Guardian, 17 Sept 1930, p. 1.
17 Charlottetown Guardian, 19 Sept 1930, p. 1
18 Charlottetown Guardian, 19 Sept 1930, p. 1.
19 Charlottetown Guardian, 20 Sept 1930, p. 11.
20 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, p. 85.
21 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, p. 87.
22 Harbour Grace Airport Log as entered by Harry Connor. Found at http://www.planecrashgirl.ca/2017/11/09/columbia-nx237/ 
23 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, p. 87.
24 Charlottetown Guardian, 24 Sept 1930, p. 1, 3.
25 Charlottetown Guardian, 24 Sept 1930, p. 1, 3.
26 Charlottetown Guardian, 25 Sept 1930, p. 1.
27 Charlottetown Guardian, 10 Oct 1930, pp. 1, 3.
28 Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Oct 1930, pp. Page 1, 3
29 The Canadian Aerophilatelist, Sept 1995, “1930: Erroll Boyd’s Trans-Atlantic Flight”, by Ross Smyth, p. 15.
30 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, pp. 98-99.
31  Charlottetown Guardian, 15 Oct 1930, pp. 1, 3
31 The Lindbergh of Canada: The Erroll Boyd Story, 1997, p. 100.
32 The Canadian Aerophilatelist, Sept 1995, “1930: Erroll Boyd’s Trans-Atlantic Flight”, p. 15.
33 Charlottetown Guardian, 11 Oct 1930, p. 1.
34 Charlottetown Guardian, 13 Oct 1930, p. 3
35 Charlottetown Guardian, 11 Oct 1930, p. 1.
36 Charlottetown Guardian, 22 Nov 1930, p. 1.
37 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright-Bellanca_WB-2
38 https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/ashtray-wright-bellanca-wb-2-columbia