In 1948 members of the Piapot Reserve, where he’d played as a boy, made him an honourary chieftain of the Cree Nations: Chief Kisikaw Wawasam — ‘Flash-in-the-Sky-boy’.
On the evening of Sept. 7, 1910, a strange craft sat in a circus tent near Mount Tolmie. To its skeleton of spruce were attached two wings, 20 feet by eight, the whole covered with blue tent silk. It was 50 feet long, had an engine straddling the frame’s centre, and two propellers, one forward, one aft.
It was the first plane built in Western Canada and its builder, William Wallace Gibson, was anxiously wondering, “Would it fly?”
The Wright brothers had worked their miracle at Kitty Hawk just seven years before and the 34-year-old former Saskatchewan blacksmith was convinced that flight was the key to the future. As he completed his final preparations in the Victoria cow pasture, he prayed that his ungainly “twin-plane” of silk, spruce and wire would vindicate 20 years of painstaking research, experimentation and expense.
Born in Dalmellington, Ayshire, in 1876, the fourth of four boys and a girl, he was seven years old when the family moved to Wolseley, Sask. For three years, there being no school, young William enjoyed a Huckleberry Finnesque childhood with neighbouring Cree children. Soon “Jumping Deer” could hunt with bow and arrow with the best of them.
At 13, after three years of formal schooling, it became his duty to shepherd the family’s cattle and horses. As the animals placidly grazed, William turned his mind to flight and practised with kites he towed behind his charging horse before launching what he claimed to be “the first passenger flight in the Dominion of Canada” — snared gophers placed in cardboard boxes and sent aloft on the tail of a kite.
“I could only keep them in the air for about an hour because many of them became deathly sick, and when I brought them down they sat on the grass with their eyes half-closed for about two minutes” before scampering off. Determined to extend the duration of their flight by making conditions more comfortable for them, he fashioned a dome-shaped basket of willow wands — willow to cut wind resistance and to allow his gophers to enjoy the view.
He launched this masterpiece, a seven-foot kite with nine passengers, one gusting May afternoon. When his arm tired he tied the kite string to a fence and lay back to “ponder and see visions of powered flight”. His reverie ended abruptly when the kite crashed, killing all on board, after one of the gophers chewed through the cord securing the basket to the kite. William Wallace mourned “the first air casualt[ies] in Canada” — and vowed to use brass wire in the future.
With adulthood and a growing blacksmithing and hardware business, and inspired by the Wright brothers’ success in 1901, he turned to building models of airplanes while pondering a means of motivation. As he had nothing more to go on than his boyhood efforts with kites, an early effort with a 20-inch wingspan resembled “two small kites, one behind the other,” powered by the spring of a window-blind roller which doubled as a fuselage. He carved a 10-inch propeller from mahogany and made a launching ramp which he “varnished and polished…like glass”.
His greatest concern was for secrecy: “I was afraid if my bankers heard of or saw me playing with such a contraption they would…call in their loans… I decided to keep my experiments secret.” One dawn in June 1904, his spring-loaded “plane” soared 130 feet before crashing into a boxcar. He didn’t care that it was damaged — “I had proved beyond a doubt that I could build a machine that would fly!”
He began working on a full-scale craft and had almost completed a four-cylinder, four-cycle engine for it when he heard of an opportunity to bid on a construction contract for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. He lost everything, moved to Victoria to begin afresh, bought a gold mine on the Island’s west coast for $100, his boat, camera, telescope and rifle, then flipped it for $10,000.
After having his four-cylinder engine shipped out, he found its six-inch stroke so long that it “jumped around like a chicken with its head chopped off,” so he designed a 60-hp two-cylinder, six-cycle, air-cooled model.
For months, morning till night, at Hutchinson Brothers’ Machine Shop in Esquimalt, he handcrafted nearly every part himself, including the 100 bolts that were hollow-bored to save weight. Finally came the great day, after two aborted attempts because of last-minute glitches. With the first feeble rays of dawn, Sept. 8, 1910, William and two friends wheeled the ungainly “twin-plane” into a Lansdowne pasture.
Gibson spun the propeller and, as the monster roared to life, climbed into the seat — a horse saddle — and put both hands on the controls. Bucking wildly, the giant bat sped across the field then, sniffing the dawn air hungrily, zoomed skyward in a long, lazy arch before bumping to earth, seconds later, 200 feet from its starting point. William Wallace Gibson had flown!
“Local aviator makes aeroplane and flies,” cried a Victoria Daily Times headline. “May the ingenious and plucky bird-man have all kinds of good luck,” wished the Colonist. But Victorians weren’t impressed; even Gibsons’s friends laughed, called him “Bird-man,” and flapped their arms when they passed. Others pointed skyward and covered their faces.
But Gibson couldn’t quit. When, two weeks later, he crashed into an oak tree at 40 mph, smashing two fingers, gashing his head (he’d carry the latter scars for life) and totalling his twin-plane, he set to work on the multi-plane. Taking no chances with trees this time, he ultimately shipped it to Calgary where, in the hot, humid air, it performed several successful flights until Aug. 12, 1911, when, trying to avoid some badger holes while landing, he again crashed.
William Wallace walked away with minor injuries but his magnificent multi-plane was ruined. He’d lost a total of $20,000 (then a fortune) and 20 years of his life, and now had to consider his family. His aviation career was ended.
But he’d made Canadian aviation history!