The Wright Brothers vigorously defended their place as the first aviators on the planet.
Georgia’s own “Wright Brothers” were more casual. They didn’t collect newspaper clippings, never gave interviews, didn’t write about their exploits, didn’t go on speaking tours and never made any money off their inventions.
Dan A. Aldridge Jr., a retired tax consultant, and a resident of Winterville, in the Athens area, wants to change that.
Aldridge, 65, has just published “To Lasso the Clouds: The Beginning of Aviation in Georgia” (Mercer University Press, $29), a meticulously researched account of the first flight in Georgia, which reveals, for the first time, a startlingly different account than the accepted story.
He will speak about the book on Monday at the Decatur Library.
The state historical marker in front of the Athens-Ben Epps Airport credits Epps with flying the first airplane in Georgia sometime in 1907. So does the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in Warner Robins.
But it didn’t happen then, writes Aldridge. And it wasn’t just Ben Epps building and flying the plane. Aldridge discovered that Epps worked with a partner named Zumpt Huff. The two accomplished more than has been known until now, because they successfully built the first monoplane in the U.S., which they flew on Aug. 28, 1909.
Huff’s name has been missing from the public record until now, and errors in later newspaper accounts placed the date of the event in 1907. Newspaper reports from 1909 somehow have been missing or ignored.
Epps met Huff when both were working at the Morton and Taylor Electrical Contractors in Athens, a company that repaired and sold motors and generators, did electrical contracting and also served as an agent for Cadillac, Yale and Rambler automobiles.
Morton and Taylor ceased operations sometime before January 1908. Huff left to become an assistant projectionist at a movie theater on North Lumpkin Street while Epps opened his own electrical shop and automotive garage on Washington Street.
Inspired by the Wright Brothers, Epps and Huff began cobbling together a biplane in the Epps garage during the early months of 1909, using some design suggestions from aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss. Curtiss suggested a “pusher”-type airplane, with the propeller set up behind the wings and aimed toward the aft, or rear, of the plane.
Unfortunately, while they were testing the biplane by towing it behind a Studebaker automobile, the tow rope broke and the Epps-Huff I crashed and splintered. The two set to work on a follow-up, this time a monoplane with a single wing.
Epps and Huff brashly wrote to Henry Ford that year, looking for a lightweight engine for their monoplane. All of Ford’s automobiles engines were heavy, water-cooled machines, but they figured Ford could come up with a good design for a lighter air-cooled engine. Ford wrote them back a terse, hand-signed reply. “Ford Motor Company does not wish to become involved in airplanes.”
Shortly after that exchange, Ford put his son Edsel in charge of a small crew developing a monoplane, which was tested in 1910 but never flew well. “It’s a coincidence that’s hard to dismiss,” Aldridge writes.
The Epps-Huff II also failed to perform well, and the two scrapped the design, starting over with a smaller, lighter, better-balanced monoplane, the Epps-Huff III, powered by a 15-horsepower Anzani motorcycle engine. The city of Athens was well-aware that these two were working on their airplane, and a story in the Athens Banner (soon to be the Athens Banner- Herald) promised a public unveiling that summer.
That moment came on Aug. 28, when a crowd gathered at Lynwood Park, an open rectangular field of slightly uneven terraced land. While Epps sat at the controls, Huff grasped the propeller and kicked off the engine, which jumped to life with a deafening roar.
The plane inched forward, then rose and flew about 50 yards before bumping into a terrace and coming to a halt. “Their feat was nothing short of miraculous,” Aldridge writes. With no training, and no funding except their own meager earnings, they made the first flight in Georgia. Epps was 21 and Huff was 19.
What is even more astonishing is that they accomplished their feat 106 days before Henry W. Walden, a dentist from Long Island, flew his own monoplane a stingy 30 feet. It was Walden who was credited with flying the first monoplane in the U.S., and his name is in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Epps went on to pursue a career in aviation, designing and building new planes, refurbishing and selling old ones, giving flying lessons and barnstorming around the country. He taught eight of his ten children to fly, and his youngest son, Ernest Patrick, became the owner/operator of Epps Aviation at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. He fell out of touch with Huff, who moved to Atlanta in 1911 and to Florida in 1926.
On Oct. 16, 1937, Ben Epps and a young customer, Harold Cagle, took off from the Athens airport in a rebuilt de Havilland Gipsy biplane. The two crashed on takeoff. Cagle was injured and Epps was killed.
Aldridge, a champion of libraries and president of the Friends of Georgia Libraries, has communicated with local and national halls of fame in an attempt to correct the date of Georgia’s first flight to add Huff’s name to the record.
“You cannot put one ‘Wright Brother’ in the Hall of Fame,” he said, “and leave the other one out.”
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