The first decades of aviation produced a handful of aficionados with something of a daredevil attitude. These men scoffed at the often unreliable aircraft then available, and discounted the instabilities that characterized many of those craft.
The exploits of air aces during World War I only added to the romance and appeal of flying. Few of those flyers had any fear that they would become a victim of a flying accident.
One such local man was Lewis Ernst of Mount Forest. He was a son of J.J. Ernst, proprietor with his brother George of a farm implement firm that began in Salem under the proprietor ship of Archibald Filshie. The company later moved to Mount Forest, and the Ernst Brothers took it over in 1907. By far their most popular product was the Favourite threshing machine. Many examples served well for more that 40 years, and examples are today popular attractions at antique farm implement shows.
Lewis Ernst, the elder son of J.J. was born in 1905, and joined the family firm while still a teenager. He was bright and energetic, and a very popular young man in the social circles of Mount Forest. Lewis took a leading role while in his early 20s in the management of Westminster Church, and served as the business manager of the Musical Society Band. But his biggest and overriding passion was aviation.
In the summer of 1929 he invested his savings to study flying at Hamilton in preparation for tests to gain his pilot’s licence. During the fall of 1929 he continued to fly with an instructor to sharpen his skills.
On Dec. 12 Frank Soan, a friend of Ernst and one of his instructors, flew his plane, a DeHaviland Moth, from the airport at Mount Dennis, near Toronto. He landed at the edge of Mount Forest. Witnesses described his landing as perfect.
In a few minutes Lewis Ernst was in the plane, and it prepared to take off again at about 11:30 in the morning. The young men planned to take a short jaunt to the farm of George Roe, about a mile from Milverton in Mornington Township, and about 25 miles northeast of Stratford.
Roe was another of Lew Ernst’s friends, and was also a dealer for the Ernst firm’s implements. As the plane’s engine roared to life, Ernst told his father that he would be back late in the afternoon to deal with some office work.
The plane took off and circled two or three times around Mount Forest, giving Ernst a rare look at his home town from the air, and delighting the locals. It then flew off to the southwest. Roe and Ernst had no difficulty in finding the Roe farm. It was a sunny day, and there was as yet little snow on the ground, but sufficient for the plane to land using its skis. They circled the farm in order to identify a good place to land, and found one on a field near the house.
Robert McMane, who lived about a mile away, was one of four witnesses to what happened. Airplanes were still very much a novelty in that area, and he watched intently from a window in his house. McMane watched as the plane banked sharply after passing over the farm in preparation for a landing. It had circled the farm twice. The plane turned very sharply, noted McMane, and the wings were almost vertical. It was at an altitude of 500 feet above the ground, he estimated. Suddenly the craft lurched, did a half somersault, and then began to spiral, nose first, toward the ground.
McMane immediately rushed out to the crash. When he arrived two other witnesses, Jim Broughton and Joe Fleming, were already there, along with George Roe, the owner of the farm. The ground was frozen, but the plane had buried itself at least two feet into the field. It came to rest 700 or 800 feet from the Roe house. The plane was a complete wreck, twisted and in pieces. The wings were crumpled, and the fuselage was in two pieces.
Though help was on the scene almost immediately, both men in the plane were quite dead. Interestingly, Soan, not Ernst, had been at the controls. Frank Soan was a professional flyer, employed by a firm called Aircraft Limited based at the Mount Dennis airport. With a skilled flyer at the controls, speculation as to the cause of the crash arose immediately, and continued long after the crash.
At the scene of the accident, George Roe immediately identified the body of Lew Ernst. Personal papers in his wallet identified Soan, as did the name engraved on the helmets worn by the men. The bodies were removed from the wreckage less than 10 minutes after the crash. Dr. P.L Tye of Milverton rushed to the scene as soon as he was called. He stated that the impact was so severe that no one could have survived.
Coroner Dr. D.A. Kerr of Atwood arrived later in the day and decided to hold an inquest. The evidence relied in large part on the testimony of the witnesses, who said nothing that they had not already related to reporters.
Following an examination by the coroner, the body of Frank Soan was returned to his home in Mount Dennis. The remains of Lewis Ernst were taken back to Mount Forest, and prepared for the funeral on Saturday, Dec. 14. Had he lived, Ernst would have celebrated his 25th birthday 11 days later on Christmas Day.
The DeHaviland Moth flown by Soan and Ernst was a model that was easily the most popular small plane of the period. Initially built in 1925, it quickly overtook all competition to become the Model T of aviation in Great Britain and Canada. It was a bi-plane, British-designed, with wings below and above the fuselage. The wings could be folded back for easier storage, hence the name. Built of plywood and spruce, it was light and fragile, but was relatively easy to fly and very maneuverable. That made it popular with aviation hobbyists and as a plane well suited for training purposes. Eventually it came in a dozen models, and it remained popular until the eve of World War II. Curiously, it appears that no photos of the plane or the crash scene have survived.
Ernst’s funeral was conducted from the parlour of his parents’ house, which could not contain the crowd who wished to attend the service. His death was considered a blow to the town. Despite his young age, Lewis Ernst had risen to become one of the leading citizens of Mount Forest, and many people considered that he would play a key role in the future of the town where he had been born less than 25 years earlier.
Mount Forest residents regarded the death of Lewis Ernst as a very sad and pointless loss, and one that deprived the town of a leader who would have contributed greatly to the future of the town. Those sentiments persisted for decades.
Lewis Ernst’s parents, John Jacob and Maria, both continued to live in Mount Forest until their deaths in their 80s in 1956. He was also survived by his brother, Laverne.