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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

THE FIRST AIR FLIGHT

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

This 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.

Cannon 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.


All 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.)

See Texas Aviation and Aviators

 

 

 

 


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