by Gary Hebbard, Journalist and Aviation Enthusiast
Born on Forest Road, St. John’s in 1905, Ches Mills was perfectly positioned by the 1920s to see and participate in the burgeoning aviation scene. Several early flyers kept their airplanes at nearby Quidi Vidi Lake, there being no established airport at the time. Blessed with the natural ability to understand and fix just about anything mechanical, the young man was able to make himself useful to flyers whose planes needed repair or maintenance. Thus was born his impulse to fly.
Exact dates are lost to history but during the 1920s Ches came across a book at the Water Street store owned by Sammy Garland that contained plans for building a glider. The powerless aircraft was soon finished under Ches’s skilled hands and took wing from the White Hills at the east end of Quidi Vidi. Helped by some young boys and a device fashioned from old inner tubes that, when stretched, supplied enough energy to propel the plane forward fast enough to generate the speed necessary for flight, Ches achieved his dream.
The experience soon convinced the young birdman that an engine would make flight simpler and more enjoyable and a copy of Popular Mechanics magazine supplied the answer with suitable blueprints for a powered, low wing monoplane. Scrounging the necessary material, including a two cylinder engine, the new machine took shape, the only bought part being a propeller that he had to send away for. Completed with skis for a landing gear, the plane could be flown only during winter when the snow provided a natural runway. Ches soon became proficient at takeoffs, landings and directional control but longed to fly in warmer weather. The solution was a pair of home-made floats replacing the skis. Quidi Vidi Lake soon reverberated to the sound of the plane accelerating for takeoff but further success was not to be. At some point a meeting with a possible obstruction in the water resulted in the plane crashing violently, injuring Ches seriously. Pulled from the wreckage and taken to hospital, Ches closed the aerial chapter of his life.
“He never went back to see the plane, he never saw her again,” related son Neville, now retired in St. John’s.
Just another leaf from the rich history of aviation in Newfoundland and Labrador.