THE FIRST AIR FLIGHTby
fall marks the 100th anniversary of an event that came close to establishing East
Texas as the birthplace of American aviation.|
In the fall of 1902, a
year before Orville and Wilbur Wright flew into the sky at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina,
a Baptist preacher named Burrell Cannon flew an airship above the ground at Pittsburg
in Camp County. Cannon, a sawmiller and inventor, was intrigued by the Bible's
account of Ezekiel's vision of God and strange flying entities propelled by wheels.
Ezekiel had this to say: "The appearance of the wheels and their work was like
unto the color of beryl; and the four had one likeness; and their appearance was
as it were a wheel within a wheel...and when the living creatures went, the wheels
went with them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from earth, the wheels
were lifted up."
Cannon developed an airship patterned after Ezekiel's
example with large, fabric-covered wings powered by an engine which turned four
sets of paddles mounted on wheels. By means of a lever, a pilot could take off
vertically and maneuver the plane by controlling the angle of the paddles. In
August of 1901, after developing several prototypes, Cannon convinced his friends
in Camp County to invest in his Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company. Some $20,000
in stock was sold at $25 a share.
Built on the upper floor of P.W. Thorsell's
Machine Shop in Pittsburg,
the plane was ready for its initial flight in the autumn of 1902. It was soon
flown from a pasture owned by Thorsell. The pilot was a man who had worked on
the airship with Cannon.
Those present at the flight said the airship
lurched forward for a short distance before rising vertically into the air. It
traveled down the pasture and began to drift. Because it was vibrating considerably,
the engine was turned off and floated down to earth.
After several other
trial runs, Cannon shipped his airship to the St. Louis World's Fair, where it
was to be exhibited, but a storm blew the craft from a railroad flatcar near Texarkana.
It was demolished and preacher Cannon left his plane where it crashed, saying:
"God never meant for man to fly."
But he changed his mind and sold stock
in a second company established in the Longview
area around in 1908-1913.
A second plane was built in Chicago and a pilot
flew it in 1913. But as the airship rose into the air, it struck the top of a
utility pole and crashed. Cannon again gave up flying and turned to more down-to-earth
inventions, including a cotton picker and a boll weevil destroyer.
died at Marshall in 1922, but his
legacy wasn't fully known until the town of Pittsburg realized his aeronautical
skills, built a replica of his Ezekiel airship for the l986 Texas Sesquicentennial
and starting attracting tourists intrigued by a powered flight that took place
a year before Orville and Wilbur Wright made American history.
Things Historical >|
September, 2002 Column
Published with permission
(Bob Bowman is a fomer
president of the East Texas Historical Association and the author of 28 books
on East Texas history and folklore. He lives in Lufkin.)
Texas Aviation and Aviators