Former astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason flies a replica of the Silver Dart, the first heavier-than-air machine to fly in Canada, Friday in Hamilton. The first powered flight in the Commonwealth took place on Baddeck Bay in Nova Scotia on Feb. 23, 1909. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press) )

A former Canadian astronaut was able to fly a replica of the historic Silver Dart a few metres above the runway of an Ontario airport Friday after earlier tests showed stability problems with the aircraft.

Fire trucks were on hand as Bjarni Tryggvason drove the fragile-looking plane up and down the runways of Hamilton International Airport, passing modern passenger jets parked in the background.

The aircraft briefly lifted off the ground at least twice before touching back down on the runway.

A group of volunteers who built the plane in Welland, Ont., hope to take it to Cape Breton later this month to mark the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in Canada and the Commonwealth.

The group wanted to test out a stability weakness in the plane's nose before the big day.

"This is going to be a new experience," said Tryggvason, adding he's not nervous about trying to fly the replica.

Previous copy crashed

The nose of the plane has a tendency to move up and down uncontrollably, the same problem that caused a replica built in 1959 to crash.

"I've worked with the folks for six or eight months," Tryggvason said earlier. "They've done a very good job of building this. I have done a lot of wind tunnel testing to make sure it's rigged properly and set properly."

He said he takes the same "pilot-engineer" approach to flying the Silver Dart replica as he does to operating the U.S. space shuttle. Tryggvason was a payload specialist on a 1997 flight of the Discovery shuttle.

"Thinking about it, planning what you're doing and thinking it through. That's what we do," he said.

The first powered flight in the Commonwealth took place on frozen Baddeck Bay in Nova Scotia on Feb. 23, 1909. On that day, a horse-drawn sled pulled the silver-winged Silver Dart onto the ice.

The plane rose in the air, flying at an elevation between three to nine metres for nearly a kilometre.

With co-designer Alexander Graham Bell on hand, J.A.D. McCurdy flew the plane, earning Canada's first pilot's licence. The Wright Brothers had made their historic first powered flight in late 1903 at Kitty Hawk, N.C., with their Flyer aircraft.

The Welland replica was built using a set of plans from the original Silver Dart.

Tryggvason said there are small differences between this plane and the original, including nylon wings instead of the original's silver-coloured silk, for which the plane was named. The replica also uses hockey tape.

"This engine is a little bit smaller … has a little more power," he said. "We're just tweaking up the carburetor, making sure we get the flow of power out of the engine."

After Friday's test run, the plane will be taken apart and shipped to Cape Breton.

Don Peters, with the Silver Dart Centennial Association, said having the plane in Baddeck next week will be a real treat, even if it doesn't fly.