With all pioneering endeavours, particularly those that have augmented the explorational and technological capacities of the human species, there is a certain degree of sacrifice and hardship. Those we consider visionaries or heroes often possess a seemingly lax attitude towards their own physical safety and or future prospects. In other words, they do not care about themselves, only about conquering limitations, and in doing so, are exposed to unforeseen consequences. Captain Gerry Tulley and Lieutenant James Metcalfe, piloting the Canadian monoplane “Sir John Carling,” and C.A Duke Schiller along with Phillip S. Wood manning the “Royal Windsor,” symbolized this trailblazing spirit.
On September 5, 1927, at approximately 4:00pm, the “Sir John Carling,” named after the iconic Canadian businessman and politician of the same name, erratically bounced on a strong westerly wind toward the Harbour Grace Airport. It is easy to imagine the anxiety-ridden bystanders, nervously watching as the “Sir John Carling” flimsily bent in the gusting wind, hoping for a safe landing. It landed with excessive speed and collided with the plain, damaging the rubber and tail skid. As if nothing happened, Tulley and Metcalfe bounded from the plane with buoyancy and chipper enthusiasm, feeling the embrace of the townsfolk and Magistrate John Casey, the President of the Harbour Grace Airport Trust Company. They intended to return home to London, England, and had begun their journey from London, Ontario, stopping in Caribou, Maine on the way. “Caribou” was a familiar term with the young men charged with repairing the “Sir John Carling,” reminding them of their fathers, brothers or friends who had fought under the famous Caribou badge of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment a decade earlier. Tulley and Metcalfe chose to spend the night at Cochrane House, a popular overnight residence for aviators passing through Harbour Grace, while their plane was prepared to traverse the treacherous transatlantic trap.
While planning to depart Harbour Grace, Tulley and Metcalfe received the news that the “Old Glory,” a monoplane attempting the transatlantic crossing, had gone missing about 500 miles from Cape Race. However, at 9:54am, Tulley and Metcalfe, enticed by the beckoning Atlantic Ocean, disregarded the news, and set off for London. As onlookers observed its departure, the “Sir John Carling” disappeared over the sunlit horizon with an air of inevitability. At 6:00am the next day, misery began to grip the facilitators of the “Sir John Carling” flight on both sides of the Atlantic, as Tulley and Metcalfe had not been recorded as having made it across the Atlantic, and nobody could pinpoint their location. It was therefore assumed they had met the same fate as “Old Glory,” and the S.S. Kyle, a steam ship now aground in Harbour Grace, was assigned to undertake a recovery mission for both planes. It would appear however, as the S.S. Kyle recovered nothing, that the “Sir John Carling” was lost to the wind.
The next day, September 7, 1927, at approximately 4:20pm, another Canadian monoplane hovered over the Harbour Grace Airport, this was the “Royal Windsor” flown by experienced aviators C.A. “Duke” Schiller and Phillip S. Wood. Within minutes the plane was on the ground, sailing gracefully down the wind currents and onto the plain, so gracefully in fact, that one bystander remarked “she would not have crushed an eggshell.” As if emulating the “Sir John Carling,” townsfolk swarmed the travellers with cheerful positivity, and Magistrate John Casey welcomed them to Harbour Grace. Perfect weather and a newly furbished aircraft from the Stinson Aircraft Corporation of Detroit allowed for a smooth flight from Old Orchard, Maine, and from where they started, Windsor, Ontario. Schiller and Wood had touched down in a community coming to grips with the lost “Sir John Carling” and now increasingly skeptical of the daring transatlantic flights. One can speculate that a town rife with past tragedies ranging from great fires to religious affrays would be averse to risks, keen on retaining any sense of stable continuity. Schiller and Wood were subsequently informed of the missing “Sir John Carling,” regardless, and like fish to a bait, they could not resist the prospect of satisfying their hunger for transatlantic aviation glory. It is worth mentioning as well that they intended to follow the path charted by the “Old Glory” and “Sir John Carling.” The “Royal Windsor” seemed destined to meet the same cursed fate. Excited for their transatlantic flight the next day, Schiller and Wood retired to Cochrane House early, while their plane was overhauled.
For what was perhaps the only time in the history of Harbour Grace, residents awakened to a thick fog accompanied by pelting rain and were thankful for it. It meant the “Royal Windsor” would be delaying its flight until the next day, September 9, 1927, thus potentially saving the lives of Schiller and Wood. Sure enough, as if the universe had changed its mind, all forces seemed to conspire to prevent the “Royal Windsor” from leaving Harbour Grace on the ninth. Orders came from John Chick and Edward Valette first, both on the Windsor Flight Committee, that demanded Schiller and Wood abandon their transatlantic flight and return home. Not long after, Windsor Mayor Cecil Jackson passed a motion to stop the “Royal Windsor” flight. Finally, the British Air Ministry strongly advised against any transatlantic flights, reiterating widespread public opinion on the matter. Schiller and Wood loathed to cancel the flight, their dreams of conquering the Atlantic were snuffed out by weather with unexpected and undue uncooperativeness, and by public officials echoing the public’s desire to prioritize safety.
Soaring above Conception Bay on September 14, 1927, a week after their anticipated transatlantic flight was abruptly cancelled, Schiller and Wood paid homage to those trailblazing spirits who perished in the act of raising humanity to new heights. The two dropped memorial wreaths to the all-consuming Atlantic Ocean below and continued their journey to Windsor. The pioneers of modern aviation were not done with Harbour Grace though, as it turns out, the ground-breaking flights, whether tragic like the “Sir John Carling,” or relieving like the “Royal Windsor,” would define the small town in the not-so-distant future.
Authored By: Francis Finlayson
Memorial University – Digital Archives Initiative http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/cns_enl/id/2677/rec/1
Parsons, B. and B. Bowman
1983 The Challenge of the Atlantic: A Photo-Illustrated History of Early Aviation in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Robinson-Blackmore Book Publishers: Newfoundland.