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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Elm Mott's Eccentric Airman

Michael Barr

The history of powered flight began with Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903, but for a time a rogue inventor from Central Texas gave the Wrights a run for their money.

W. D. Custead, a cousin to Buffalo Bill Cody, was an MKT railroad agent in Elm Mott - a tiny town north of Waco. He was also a tinkerer with a passion for powered flight.

In 1894 Custead began work on an airship with a hull made of tubular steel, covered with oiled linen, and filled with hydrogen to give it buoyancy. It was 40 feet long, 12 feet wide, and shaped like a hotdog bun with three flapping wings on each side. Power came from a 10 horsepower compressed carbonic acid gas engine.

"The principle involved in my machine is a combination of balloon, bird wing, and aeroplane," Custead said. "It will move in the air like a steamship on the water."

Powered flight was a topic of national conversation as the twentieth century approached. The sky was the new frontier. The subject was even a matter of national security. The War Department in Washington had a keen interest in flying machines as weapons of the future. To stimulate the development of aeroplanes, particularly as weapons, Congress offered a $100,000 reward for the first design of a practical airship.

In 1899 Custead presented his plans to the War Department in hopes of winning the prize. He was determined to be the first to fly. That goal became an obsession.

But Custead was a better salesman than engineer, and he had trouble separating the dream from reality. He began making irresponsible claims that wildly exaggerated the development of his flying machine and its performance. He claimed to have the backing of prominent eastern businessmen to the tune of $100,000. He boldly announced that the first voyage of his "ornithopter" would be from Elm Mott to Waco, a distance of twenty miles, and that within a few years his airships would connect all the major cities in the country. He predicted that in July 1900 he and some friends would sail his airship to New York; then cross the Atlantic in his wonderful aerial conveyance in time for the Paris World's Fair in August.

It was widely reported that Custead completed his first airship and tested it at the factory at Elm Mott in April 1900. A number of people reported seeing it fly, tethered by ropes to cotton scales to measure its lifting power.

But there is no evidence that the ornithopter ever got off the ground. The design had major flaws. The network of gears and chains that moved the wings was too complicated and new-fangled engine was too heavy.

Disappointed but still optimistic, Custead moved to New York in 1901 to team up with another aeronautical daydreamer named Gustave Whitehead. The two men worked on their airships, together and independently, until December 17, 1903, when headlines around the world announced the Wright Brothers first flight.

Custead was crushed by the news from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He watched as the Wright Brothers gained fame that rightly belonged to him. His dream was over, and he became a bitter man. He left New York and wandered alone to New Orleans, then San Francisco, and finally to Hawaii. Except for a few letters, his wife and family never heard from him again.

He lived the rest of his life in Hawaii as a hermit. He was hostile to visitors. He rarely wore clothes. He died naked, while cooking dinner, on March 17, 1933.



Michael Barr
"Hindsights" February 15 , 2016 Column

Sources:
Sedalia Evening Sentinel, May 8, 1899.
Shiner Gazette, January 18, 1899, "Air Ship Invention."
New Albany Evening Tribune, April 25, 1900, "To Paris in an Airship."
New York Times, November 3, 1900, "The Custard Airship," p.1
Sedalia Evening Sentinel, December 7, 1900, "Airship in Texas," p.1.
Nick Pocock, Did W. D. Custead Fly First? Special Aviation Publication, 1974.=


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