McCurdy became the first British subject to fly an aircraft in the British Empire when he piloted the Aerial Experiment Association's Silver Dart off the ice of Bras d'Or Lake in Nova Scotia. The Silver Dart was the first powered aircraft to fly in Canada. In 1910, he was the first Canadian to be issued a pilot's license and the following year, he made the first flight from Florida to Cuba. For the next few years, he continued to set aviation records in Canada and North America, until 1916, when vision problems grounded him.
In 1915, McCurdy established the first aviation school in Canada, the Curtiss Flying School, operating from 1915 to 1919, and was the first manager of Long Branch Aerodrome, Canada's first airport. He was also instrumental in setting up Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd., an aircraft manufacturing company located in Toronto, Ontario, Canada that built aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Formed on 15 December 1916, when the Imperial Munitions Board bought the Curtiss (Canada) aircraft operation in Toronto (opened in 1916 as Toronto Curtiss Aeroplanes), Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. manufactured the JN-4 (Can) Canuck, the Felixstowe F5L flying boat, and the Avro 504.
In 1928, McCurdy created the Reid Aircraft Company in Montreal and became its first president. After a merger, he remained at the helm of the Curtiss-Reid Aircraft Company, a position he held until the advent of war. The most notable product of the company was the Curtiss-Reid Rambler.
McCurdy married Margaret Ball of Woodstock, Ontario, daughter of Margaret and Robert N. Ball, Queens Counsel for Sullivan Co, Ontario.
At the beginning of the Second World War, McCurdy became Assistant Director General of Aircraft Production. He remained in that position until 1947.
In 1947, McCurdy was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, a post he continued until 1952. He was awarded the McKee Trophy in 1959 on the 50th anniversary of the flight of the Silver Dart. He attended official ceremonies and sat in the replica Silver Dart built for the occasion. He was also named an honorary air commodore at the time.
The McCurdy Award at McGill University in Montreal was introduced in 1954 by the Institute of Aircraft Technicians. The award commemorates the contributions made by John A.D. McCurdy during the development of the aviation industry in North America. Following its creation in 1973, McCurdy was inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame.