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First (official) flight
over Texas

by Clay Coppedge
Luckenbach 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 lawyerly hassling.

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 minutes.

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 their own.

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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