tinkerer Jacob Brodbeck made the first alleged airplane flight in
Texas in 1865, or just less than four decades before the Wright
Brothers took wing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
The first official airplane flight in the state happened in Houston
on Feb. 18, 1910 at a show put on by the Houston Post and the Western
Land Company. The pilot was Louis Paulhan, a Frenchman who was already
a superstar of Europeans skies. He came to America for a series
of exhibitions, which pleased the Wright Brothers not at all.
The brothers and their lawyers claimed that certain design elements
of his Farman biplane violated the Wright Brothers' patents. A man
who wasn't afraid to fly those flimsy first airplanes - the Farman
biplane was essentially a manned box kite - wasn't afraid of lawsuits.
He flew anyway, but he did cut the tour short because of all the
The Houston Post reported that 3,500 people showed up to witness
"the greatest invention of the present era." Admission, which included
a round-trip ride on the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad,
was $1.25, or about $30 in today's dollars. If you drove there,
you paid a dollar.
The weather was soggy and windy, not ideal weather for the flimsy
Farman, but Paulhan decided to give it a go. He checked and double-checked
every inch of the airplane, then dropped his arm to signal his assistants
to spin the propeller and get the hell out of the way.
"When the mammoth dragon fly-looking machine left the earth, a murmur
disturbed the previous silence, and within an instant, the retreating
aviator received a welcome from the 3,000 throats," the Post reported.
(The response from the other 500 alleged spectators is not recorded.)
Paulhan flew south-southeast, circled back over the spectators and
landed. Many of the passengers, thinking this was all there was,
boarded waiting trains. But Paulhan was merely making an impromptu
engine repair. Within minutes, he had the plane airborne again.
And again. He flew three more times, each flight lasting about 10
Houston Chronicle reporter B.H. Carroll, Jr. waxed poetic about
Paulhan's flight: "Paulhan himself is but an operator of a machine,
a dexterous chauffeur of the air, a sky pilot, a jockey of aerial
race horses…who has dared to try out the mettle of the Pegasus that
was created by the genius of other men, and to soar to heights that
eagles do not dare."
The second day of the airshow drew a reported 6,000 people. A scheduled
third day had to be cancelled because of bad weather. Paulhan was
scheduled for more appearances following the Houston show, but instead
he returned to France to get away from the Wright Brothers and their
pesky, persistent lawyers.
The show inspired
the Chronicle editorial board to ponder the future the city had
just glimpsed: "Certainly the airship is coming faster than the
automobile, a development of the velocipede, and the imaginative
may please themselves by speculation concerning the changes that
will be brought about in everyday life and in civilization as a
whole when it will be possible to fly from Houston
to New York or Europe."
Two weeks after Paulhan left Texas, Army lieutenant Benjamin Foulois
flew the Wright Brothers biplane, which the Army had purchased,
in San Antonio. Three
years after that he was part of a squadron menacing Pancho Villa
along the border.
The vast expanses
of Texas made the state a good match for the airplane. Early aviation
pioneers like Wiley Post, Howard Hughes, barnstormer Slats Rodgers,
Bessie Coleman - the first woman and the first African-American
to get a pilot's license in Texas - and Kathy Stinson made the skies
Officially, it all started in Houston,
76 years prior to the first manned spacecraft "slipping the surly
bonds of earth" on its way to the moon.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 1, 2015 column
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