The Underwood Flying Machine

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CraigBaird

After the Wright Brothers launched their aircraft, it was not long before others around the world began to do the same. One of the earliest aircraft to ever be built and tested was tested right near Stettler, only a few miles to the east. Tested in 1907 and 1908, it was flown by the sons of John K. Underwood, a pioneer from the area.

Underwood was widely known for his innovations in the area. In 1872, he found a better way to break the sod acres and he took out a patent on his new disc plough. John’s sons would inherit their fathers ability to craft new things and once they heard about the Wright Brothers, they got down to work to replicate the accomplishment.
On May 14, 1907, the boys began testing out a rectangle, tailless kite that was eight feet across. A few days later, they tested their flying wing kites, this time with a 20-foot model. Tests would continue well into June as the boys fine-tuned the methods and the machines. In the middle of June, they were nearly completely done making their flying machine, modeled on that of the Wright Brothers design.
With many locals hearing about their design, they were invited by the Stettler Exhibition to showcase the machine at the fairgrounds in Stettler. They accepted and transported it 10 miles to Stettler. Many people were very impressed by the machine and it was even mentioned in the Toronto Globe, as well as several other newspapers. The Edmonton Journal called it Alberta’s Airship.
After the exhibition, the boys transported the aircraft back home and got down to work to have it fly. Since it had no engine, the boys decided to fly it like a kite and they took a rope of 700-feet and ran it along the ground to a post and the other side to the machine.  They did their first test on Aug. 10, 1907 and were encouraged by the results and the remarkable stability of the wing in the high winds. In all, the aircraft with five sacks of wheat weighed 350 pounds and took off easily. John Underwood, then 22-years-old, then got in the aircraft and was lifted 10 feet in the air where he stayed aloft for 15 minutes.
In the spring, the boys were able to get a seven horsepower motorcycle engine and hoped to use it for flying. Unfortunately, it did not have enough power. They attached a belt to drive a four-blade bamboo and canvas propeller. Due to the low power of the engine though, the aircraft was unable to get off the ground. The Underwood boys attempted to get a better engine and were able to find a 40-horsepower one that cost $1,300.
Thanks to the high interest in the endeavor of the boys in Alberta, a member of Parliament took up the cause in Ottawa and suggested a bill to allow any engine purchased by a Canadian to be imported into Canada duty-free. It did not get past that stage though.
Without the proper engine, the boys continued to fly their aircraft as a kite, well into 1908. Unfortunately, a high wind came up and the boys did not handle their aircraft properly. The rope was broken and the kite fell to the ground and was badly smashed.
In the end, the boys decided not to repair the aircraft as they had lost interest in trying to find a larger engine.
Suggestions for columns or questions? E-mail Craig at crwbaird@gmail.com. Listen to his podcast by searching for “Canadian History Ehx” on your podcast form. Find his show on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/c/CanadianHistoryEhx
Information for this column comes from Botha Memories.
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