#10 Pioneers: Flying Billy Stark
First Published: August 11th, 2014
The following article about early aviation in B.C. is excerpted from a long article written by Frank H. Ellis and published in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly in October of 1939. It describes how and when William (“Billy”) M. Stark made Canadian aviation history.
Before he gained renown as a pilot, Stark, son of the late James Stark, of the old firm of James Stark & Sons… is reputed to have driven the first gasoline propelled vehicle on the streets of Vancouver, in 1901. Stark became interested in flying at the time when it was regarded primarily as a sport. [PHOTO SHOWS MR. & MRS. STARK]
Part Three: Passengers in the Air, 1912
William Stark left for San Diego, where he joined the Curtiss Aviation School, at North Island. After expert tuition under the watchful eye of the famous Glenn H. Curtiss, he quickly became a banner performer, and passed the qualifying tests for an aviator’s license on March 22, 1912. Owing to the fact that no meeting of the governors was held immediately, Stark did not receive his license — No. 110 — from the Aero Club of America until April 10.
Meanwhile Stark had purchased one of the latest-type Curtiss biplanes; had shipped it to Vancouver, and was preparing to give exhibition flights in British Columbia. The machine was equipped with an 8-cylinder 75 horse-power motor, and cost $5,500. Minoru was once again the chosen flying-field, and after a brief trial cruise on Friday, April 12, Stark made his first exhibition flight on the Saturday, before a party of his friends and the press. Conditions were very favourable and he took the machine up to about 500 feet. He flew westward over the Richmond rifle-range to the mouth of the Fraser River, returned to the track, and made a perfect landing. The flight lasted about 20 minutes. Full accounts of it appeared in the newspapers on Monday, but they were overshadowed by the first reports of the Titanic disaster, which filled the front pages of the same issues.
These accounts stated that Stark would give a flying exhibition at Minoru on Saturday, April 20, and large advertisements, featuring a photograph of the aviator at the controls of his machine, appeared during the week. A large crowd was expected, and the British Columbia Electric Railway put on nine special cars to augment the regular service to Lulu Island points.
The exhibition was an unqualified success, but the crowd was small. Undoubtedly the De Pries-Manning fiasco of the previous year influenced many to stay at home.
Stark preferred to use the track as a runway rather than the infield, which was very rough. His first flight lasted but five minutes and was in the nature of a test. His second flight was also of short duration, lasting six and a half minutes, but he flew in continuous circles above the field, at a height of some 400 feet, giving the people a good view of the machine in flight, and on one circuit, keeping within the track limits, he made the mile in one minute and twenty-eight seconds.
The third and final flight of the day took thirteen minutes, and featured climbing, and gliding spirals. It was the first time stunting of the kind had been accomplished in British Columbia. At the finish of this flight, Stark shut off his engine at a height of 800 feet and made a steep dive for 600 feet, causing considerable excitement among the spectators, who were not used to this sort of thing. Upon landing, the “birdman,” as the newspapers repeatedly called him, was warmly congratulated for his fine exhibition.
Wednesday, April 24, 1912, was a notable day in the history of aviation in British Columbia, for the first successful passenger flight in the province—and, for that matter, in western Canada — took place on that date. The pilot was W. M. Stark, and the passenger James T. Hewitt, then Sporting Editor of the VancouverProvince. The flight was one of the features of Stark’s second flying exhibition at Minoru. He flew his machine to a nearby field, of larger proportions than the race-track, and a piece of board was lashed to the lower wing, just to the left of the only seat the plane possessed. Upon this “Jimmy” Hewitt perched, grasping whatever was available to hold on to.
A fresh breeze was blowing at the time, and this undoubtedly assisted in lifting the single-seater machine into the air with its double load. The flight lasted eight minutes and an altitude of about 600 feet was attained. Hewitt published a full account of his experience in his paper, and one or two excerpts will be of interest:
Once in the air the strong rush of wind kept me so busy hanging on to the rigging to prevent being swept out of the machine backwards that I had no occasion to worry about falling. My only fear was that I might be blown out into space. We dashed through the air at a pace which approximated, so the aviator informed me afterwards, about forty miles an hour.
Another remark of Hewitt’s is amusing, and shows that traffic was regarded as dangerous, even in 1912:
The turning of the machine gave me the feeling of sweeping round a sharp corner on an automobile but I felt satisfied because I knew there could be no collision around the turn. In fact I felt much safer than in a Vancouver street.
As soon as Hewitt had been returned safely to earth, Stark carried another passenger aloft — Mrs. Stark, his wife, who had made a number of ascents as a passenger in the United States. This flight was shorter than the previous one, but was equally successful, and Mrs. Stark became the first woman to venture into the air in an aeroplane in British Columbia. Indeed, it is probable that she was the first woman passenger in the Dominion.
Both Mrs. Stark and James T. Hewitt are now deceased. Mrs. Stark died in 1927, and Hewitt was killed overseas, during the last Great War.
Further flights were advertised to take place at Minoru on April 27, but were abandoned owing to heavy rain; and the following Wednesday, when it was hoped that further flying could be done, another downpour took place.
Owing to the distance of Minoru Park from the city, Stark decided that it would be wiser to give his exhibitions closer in, and Hastings Park was chosen as the scene of the flights advertised for the afternoons of May 3 and 4. Unfortunately the 3rd was once again a pouring wet day, but at last on the 4th the weather smiled, and crowds were on hand early at Hastings Park to see him fly.
No one had flown from the Park before, and at that time it was far from suitable for the purpose. Few airmen would care to use it, even to-day. The infield was well sprinkled with stumps and the grounds were nearly surrounded by huge fir and cedar trees. It can hardly have been an attractive spot to a young aviator who had every desire to live.
At eleven minutes to four, Stark took off and skillfully piloted his machine out of the grounds against a westerly breeze. The flight was short, but in the five minutes he was up he went almost to Moodyville before turning back. He landed without incident, and the crowd gave him hearty applause.
After a short rest, Stark again left the grounds, getting into the air without difficulty. He again flew to Moodyville and circled back along the north shore of the Inlet. He rose to an altitude of about 1,000 feet during this trip, and performed a number of figure eights before coming down to land. His return to the grounds almost ended in disaster. A herd of cattle was in the enclosure; apparently no one bothered about such animals wandering at large on the landing area; and one of them ran directly in the path of the aeroplane as it settled down to earth.
Seeing it, Stark pulled the machine up and hopped over the animal, but by doing so he used up most of the available landing area. The plane was still travelling fast, but it was too late to take off again owing to the nearness of the high trees. There was no choice but to head for the fence. When about 20 feet from it Stark threw himself out of the machine, and an instant later it crashed with considerable force into the railings. Two assistants, J. Perry and T. Watson, endeavoured to slow the plane up by attempting to grasp it as it rushed for the fence, but Perry received a badly cut hand for his trouble, and Watson was knocked down, and had the somewhat unusual experience of being run over by an aeroplane.
The machine was not greatly damaged, but the incident brought the flying meet at Hastings Park to a conclusion. In an interview last June, Mr. Stark mentioned the Hastings Park affair, and stated that he was forced to land down-wind on both occasions, owing to the huge trees at the easterly end and the smallness of the landing area. The risks he took that far-away day were greater than the public or the press realized, for landing down-wind is one of the most dangerous tasks in flying, even at the present time.
Hastings Park again became the centre of flying interest when a news item appeared in the Vancouver Province on May 7, 1912, announcing that two very well-known aviators, Phil Parmalee and Clifford Turpin, would give exhibitions there on the 24th and 25th of the month. On the 23rd a further item stated that the flyers had arrived and that they expected to set to work immediately to assemble their two Wright biplanes. A parachute descent from one of the planes was also promised. Customs difficulties developed, however, and in the end only one machine reached Vancouver. This was the first Wright aeroplane to come to British Columbia.
Aviation history was made again at the meet held on May 24. After a ten-minute flight by Parmalee and a flight of nine minutes by Turpin, in which he rose to the greatest height a plane had ever reached in British Columbia — well over 2,000 feet — the flight from which the parachute descent was to be made was announced. As the jump which followed was only the fourth successful parachute drop ever made from an aeroplane it deserves special comment.
Professor J. Morton had been advertised as the parachutist, but owing to sickness a substitute was procured in the person of Professor Charles Saunders, who had made many jumps from balloons but who had never been up in an aeroplane before. So far, no trace of where Saunders came from at such short notice has been unearthed, but as balloon ascensions and a parachute drop had taken place at the annual exhibition at Chilliwack just twelve days before, he may have come from there.
A makeshift container for the folded parachute was made from a large empty can, which was firmly bound to one of the skids of the machine. Attired in red tights, with a large leather helmet upon his head, Professor Saunders then took his place in the machine, just behind Parmalee. In taking off, disaster was narrowly averted, as a much longer run was required to get away with the passenger’s additional weight, and the tree-tops were barely cleared in consequence.
The airman circled around over Burrard Inlet until a height of 1,000 feet had been gained. The entire crowd watched in hushed silence as Saunders was seen to be climbing down, and at last could be discerned hanging from the machine. No harness attached the parachute to the jumper’s body in those days; the method then in vogue was to trust to a strong pair of hands and arms, by which the courageous jumper grasped the bar attached to the parachute. His own strong muscles were all he relied upon to forestall a sudden trip to eternity.
Then, in the reporter’s words:
Straight as a plummet the streak of red below the long streak of white dropped for fully one hundred feet. Then with a couple of preliminary flutters, the rushing air entered the distending ring of the parachute and it opened like a huge umbrella. A great sigh of relief went up from the six thousand and some odd pairs of eyes who were watching the daring feat.
Thousands of others outside the grounds witnessed the drop, either from the shore or from boats on the water.
Saunders landed on the North Shore, about 100 yards from the water’s edge, on the mud flats, which, being soft, made an excellent landing-place. Hundreds of picnickers, evidently there to watch the flights, soon surrounded him, and he was the centre of an admiring crowd who plied him with innumerable questions as he rolled up his parachute and awaited the coming of a power boat which he had chartered to carry him back across the Inlet to Hastings Park, on the south shore. Half an hour later he appeared back on the grounds, followed by a big crowd of boys carrying his rolled-up parachute, and was accorded a great ovation by the crowd.
The day’s flying concluded with a second flight by Turpin, which lasted seven minutes.
On Saturday, May 25, the programme was repeated. Following exhibition flights by Parmalee and Turpin, Professor Saunders made another parachute jump from the biplane. Parmalee was again the pilot, and upon this occasion Saunders made a graceful landing right in the infield, to the delight of the spectators. It was intended to conclude the meet with a cross-country flight to Bellingham, and a letter from the Mayor of Vancouver had been handed to one of the aviators in the expectation that he would deliver it by air; but threatening rain made it necessary to cancel the attempt.
These meets at Hastings Park were hazardous affairs:
Both Turpin and Parmalee stated that owing to the small size of the ground and the heavy forest and rough nature of the surrounding country as well as the high power wires they considered their flights … as the most dangerous they had ever made.
“There is absolutely no chance for us if her engine should stop while in the air,” said Turpin to the World, “for outside of the grounds, it would be impossible for an aviator to make a landing anywhere except possibly in the water. That was why we staid over the water for the largest portion of our flights.”
Brave young men, those two, fully aware of the odds against them, yet flying and taking the risk so that the crowd would not be disappointed. Both possessed very early Aero Club of America licences, Turpin’s being No. 22 and Parmalee’s No. 25. Both were issued in October 1910.
Only six day after flying in Vancouver, Turpin had the misfortune to crash into the grandstand at the Aviation Fair in Seattle. He was not badly injured himself, but a man and a small girl were killed and fifteen others badly injured.
The following day, June 1, Phil Parmalee crashed in an apple orchard in Moxee Valley, North Yakima, Washington. His machine dropped 400 feet, out of control, and in the resultant smash he lost his life.
The Vancouver World printed an interesting editorial following the flying at Hastings Park, one or two sentences from which are worth quoting:
The first parachute descent from an aeroplane which Vancouver has just witnessed, the fact that Mr. Stark, a Vancouver man, is making a great reputation as a “bird man” and that Messrs. Parmalee and Turpin gave us such a fine show of aviation last week, has set Vancouver thinking more about aviation than all we have heard about Germany’s plans for a sky army, or the advance made in aviation by Great Britain.
The flying machine has not come to stay but to go — and to arrive — at the place desired for its arrival. This province will see its development, for where could there be a finer area for its operations? In this land of “magnificent distances,” as it has been called, the flying machine will develop as the outcome of environment.
In the meantime “Billy” Stark had signed a contract to fly at Victoria on May 24, while Parmalee and Turpin were at Vancouver. He arrived in the Capital on the 22nd, having shipped his machine by boat to the Island for the event, and immediately began its assembly in readiness for Victoria Day.
He made one flight from the Oak Bay grounds on the 24th, going up several hundred feet and remaining in the air for twenty minutes. In landing the drag (brake) on the front wheel refused to work and the machine ran into the fence with considerable force, damaging it sufficiently to prevent a further flight that day. The crowd took this in excellent part, however, and both the Victoria newspapers printed accounts of the flight which praised Stark highly.
The damage was repaired by the afternoon of the 25th, and Stark once again delighted the crowd with a fine flight, which lasted fifteen minutes. On this occasion he circled the track twice and then set his course for Cordova Bay, quickly disappear ing from view. After an absence of four minutes he came into sight again, and shortly afterwards came gliding down into the grounds and made a perfect landing.
This concluded Stark’s flights on Vancouver Island. He had hoped to fly at Nanaimo as well, but the plan fell through.
Prior to this, Stark had contracted to fly at Armstrong on July 1, Dominion Day. He arrived there on June 27 to complete advance arrangements, and was followed next day by his biplane, which was immediately assembled in the skating-rink and placed on exhibition. The machine was a big drawing card, as it was the first time an aeroplane had visited the interior of British Columbia, and about 4,000 persons gathered for the Dominion Day celebrations.
Taking off from the fair grounds the airman climbed steadily, steering down Otter Lake Valley, and reaching a height of about 1,500 feet. When about 2 miles away he began to circle back towards the town. With a very strong wind to help him along he was quickly back over the sports field. Coming down low by way of salute, he continued towards Enderby, returning along the west side of the valley, against the wind.
Owing to the blustery character of the wind and the small size of the grounds, Stark decided to land elsewhere, and chose a large field about 3 miles out of town, close to the old Lansdowne cemetery — but not, presumably, because he expected to need the latter. Dr. Crawford, of Armstrong, happened to be passing close by in his automobile, and he carried the airman back to the grounds, where some anxiety had been felt at his delay in returning.
The following morning Stark went out to fly the machine back to the grounds, but a heavy rain during the night had affected the engine’s temperament, and he was no sooner off the ground than the motor began to miss badly and he was forced to land in a hurry. In doing so a tire blew out and a strut was splintered. The machine was therefore taken apart where it was, brought to town on a dray, and later shipped to Vancouver. Stark was much disappointed at this mishap, as he had intended to fly the plane back to Armstrong and perform the spiral glide and other popular aerial manoeuvres of the day….
W. M. Stark had contracted to fly at the tenth annual Nelson Fruit Fair, to be held on September 23 to 28, 1912, but a crash at Portland upset his plans, and he made arrangements with a Mr. F. A. Bennett, manager for an airman by the name of Walter Edwards, to cover the fair in his stead.
These two men arrived in Nelson with their plane on the 22nd, and immediately commenced assembly of the machine at the fair grounds. It was the first aeroplane to visit the Kootenay area, and was a Curtiss biplane, with an 8-cylinder Curtiss engine, almost identical to the one owned by Stark.
Edwards was worried by the treacherous air-currents which he expected to encounter near the mountains, and declared that he would not have permitted his manager to sign a contract requiring him to fly at Nelson if he had been familiar with the country. But he was both a brave man and a good sport, and made his first flight as scheduled on September 24. It was a complete success, as will be seen by the following description, which appeared in the Nelson News:
Two minutes before 2 o’clock the big 60 horse power 8-cylinder motor in Walter Edwards’ Curtiss biplane commenced to throb and at one minute before the scheduled time the machine shot across the grounds and rising gracefully over the fence and telephone wires at the east end, the nervy aviator began the flight which is likely to prove historic in the annals of Kootenay.
The airship shot at a 60-mile clip over Fairview, past the Hume school and shipyards to a point about three miles up the lake. Still rising, Edwards steered across the water and then, making a beautiful turn, commenced his journey back to the city, keeping close to the mountains on the north side of the lake.
He passed the grounds, drove a short distance west and then shot back in front of the grandstand, dropping within a few score feet of the spectators on the grounds as he again shot eastwards. He made another trip up the lake and flying back close to Nelson mountain, made a pretty turn over the C.P.R. flats and swooped like a great hawk to the grounds. The landing was one of the prettiest in the history of aviation and was made rapidly but without the slightest error in the manipulation of the planes which direct the course of the machine. He was in the air nine minutes.
The crowd gave the flyer a tremendous ovation. Interviewed shortly after the flight, Edwards complained that the air was “frightfully cold,” though the air-currents were not as bad as he had expected. He did not relish the fact that he had further flights to make, and remarked pessimistically that if his “eight months’ record of no accidents” were broken before he left Nelson he would “not be particularly surprised.”
However, on the 25th he showed his nerve by making another flight of twelve minutes, following almost the same course as the previous day, but narrowly averting a smash in alighting, owing to the very small area of the landing-ground. Manager Bennett was reported as being “eloquent with gloomy forebodings of probable disaster” in connection with the flights yet to be made.
A strong wind, with resultant bad air-currents, prevailed on the 26th, but, nothing daunted, Edwards again braved the air, and the machine was tossed about in the most alarming manner. He rose to a height of 700 feet and travelled as far as Five-Mile before he was able to turn the plane around and head back for the grounds. He had great difficulty in getting into a position for landing, and was forced to make several circuits of the town before at last he was enabled to do so. This time he had the misfortune to run heavily into the fence, and the machine was slightly damaged. Edwards jumped from the machine at the last moment, but hung on, acting as a drag, thus preventing a much more serious impact. No wonder the Nelson News congratulated him upon his courage.
The damage had been repaired by 2 o’clock the following afternoon, and true to his promise the daring young man once again braved the elements. The weather was more considerate, with but a slight wind and bright sunshine, and the spectators were treated to a fine flight. During this trip Edwards made a landing on the fiats some distance out of town, and as this was not scheduled, some anxiety was felt for his safety. After about five minutes, however, the sound of his engine was heard, and he was seen to be in the air again, returning to the grounds. Here he made a safe landing, no doubt with a sense of relief, as it brought his exhibition to a conclusion. Rumour had it that the airman had made a wager that he would alight on the flats and return to the grounds with a passenger, but that the person concerned backed out of the wager at the last moment. Had he made the flight, his name would have gone down in history as the first passenger-by-air in the Interior….
After an accident at Portland, Stark had been persuaded to take a rest from the “flying game,” as it was then usually termed, but he still had his machine, and early in 1914 decided to convert it into a seaplane. Pontoons were accordingly built for it by Messrs. Van Dyke & Sons, Vancouver boat-builders, the intention being to make flights later on at the numerous regattas to be held on the Pacific Coast.
On Saturday, June 14, 1914, the machine was taken out for a test run on the waters of Burrard Inlet. Starting from the boat-shed near Deadman’s Island, Coal Harbour, shortly afternoon, he taxied over the water for some time, to get the feel of things. Then in the vicinity of Brockton Point he gave the engine full power, and the craft lifted into the air without effort, passing low over the West Vancouver ferry Sonrisa and the power-yacht Kitcair. After a practice landing near Prospect Point, Stark continued his flight, going around Stanley Park and alighting on the waters of English Bay. His was the first aircraft to fly through the First Narrows, the entrance to Vancouver Harbour. After several more runs on the water and in the air, the return trip was made around the Park at a height of several hundred feet. The Komagata Maru, of unhappy memory, was in port at the time, anchored in mid-stream, and Stark mentioned later that as he looked down at the steamer he could see the hundreds of brown faces of the Hindus aboard her, looking up as he flew overhead.
Stark’s ambition to fly was evidently sufficiently strong to overcome his family’s opposition to the risks he was taking, for he again contracted to make an exhibition flight, this time at Chilliwack, on Dominion Day, in connection with the annual fair. The whole of the Fraser Valley turned out for the event, and not the least of the attractions was the promised aeroplane flight, which was the first to be made in that area.
When Stark made his first flight an extremely boisterous wind was blowing, which made matters very unpleasant for him, although the crowd on the ground enjoyed it thoroughly. In an interview the airman stated that it was just about the roughest trip he had ever made; and the Vancouver News-Advertiser stated that:
The wind was tricky, and but for the fact that the proposed flight had aroused great interest in the Fraser Valley, particularly among the old timers, Stark would have declined to ascend. After the performance he described it as the riskiest trip he had ever made, although [as the reporter added naively] it appeared quite safe from the ground.
A second flight was made in the evening, by which time the weather was somewhat calmer….
With the outbreak of the first Great War, private and exhibition flying in British Columbia came to a standstill, as it did in almost all parts of Canada. This story would not he complete, however, if mention were not made of the fact that the first Aero Club of British Columbia came into being during the fall of 1915. It was organized by a number of public-spirited businessmen of Vancouver, specially to train a number of young men for air service overseas.
W. M. Stark’s machine, which had already played so interesting a part in British Columbia’s flying history, was purchased by the Club for training purposes, and Stark himself was engaged as instructor. Training was given at Minoru Park, and the first pupils to become proficient airmen were Murton A. Seymour and Phil Scott. Both served overseas with distinction, as did a number of other pupils who qualified at a later date … Thus the pioneer period of flying came to an end, a period during which many flyers rose to fame and fortune, and a great many other brave men and women lost their lives, leaving only fading memories and scattered records to mark their passing.
[BC History editor Jane Watt notes: It is possible that Ellis’s greatest contribution to aviation was his writing. In 1954 he published Canada’s Flying Heritage, the first major study of the history of aviation in Canada, followed by In Canadian Skies in 1959 and Atlantic Air Conquest 1976. His work “not only records the significant events of Canadian aviation but also pays tribute to the ‘forgotten flyers who flew by guess and by God or with calculating caution — for the sheer love of flying — in the early days.’”
Frank H. Ellis OC was born in England in 1896. He came to Canada with his family in 1912. Two years later, he constructed and flew a biplane. In 1919 he was the first Canadian to make a parachute jump from an airplane in Canada. In Flying Canucks, Peter Pigott notes that “the red welts left on Ellis’s body by the tightened linen straps ensured that silk would be used in future parachutes. Less than a month after his jump, parachutes would be used in an emergency situation.”
Ellis was awarded the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada in 1972; two years later, the government of Manitoba named Ellis Bay in his honour. He died in North Vancouver in 1979.]
For more information on Frank H. Ellis, see http://earlyaviators.com/eellis and Flying Canucks: Famous Canadian Aviators by Peter Pigott Toronto: Dundurn, 1996).
This article appeared in the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, published by the Archives of British Columbia in cooperation with the British Columbia Historical Association.
This article is part of an ongoing series of looks into the Rear View Mirror of the past that is presented by our colleagues at British Columbia History, the province’s most venerable literary periodical, dating back to 1937. As the journal of the B.C. Historical Federation, BCH is published quarterly in March, June, September and December. It provides feature-length articles as well as documentary selections, essays, pictorial essays, memoirs, and reviews relating to the social, economic, political, intellectual, and cultural history of British Columbia. British Columbia History began in 1923 as the Annual Report and Proceedings of the British Columbia Historical Association (now the British Columbia Historical Federation). From 1937-58 it was published as the British Columbia Historical Quarterly. From 1965-2005, it was called the BC Historical News. The BCHF is fortunate to have the support of the UBC Library in digitizing the back issues of its publications and supporting the stewardship of these important links to the past (available here).
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