Texas is no stranger to tall tales—whether it’s Pecos Bill riding cyclones in the desert or sightings of a familiar ape-man in the East Texas pines. Some of these stories were clearly created for the campfire, while others are so crazy they just might be true. The story of the Ezekiel Airship is one of the latter.
Even though Ohio and North Carolina bicker over who can claim the Wright brothers and their legendary first flight in 1903, it may be that Texas beat them both.
On a cold day in December, I walked into the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Center in Pittsburg, not knowing what to expect. Of course, I found the typical collection of antique farming equipment and old photographs. But what I didn’t expect was a full-sized aircraft hanging from the ceiling. It is a replica of the Ezekiel Airship, which local legend claims was the first aircraft in the world to carry a human into flight. But how could this be? I had never even heard of it, much less heard of the Baptist preacher named Burrell Cannon who built it. And so my education began.
Cannon, also a part-time mechanic, moved to Texas in the late 1800s. Inspired by a passage from Old Testament prophet Ezekiel about flying creatures and wheels within wheels, Cannon set out to design an aircraft. Given his solid reputation as a talented mechanic, and no doubt his charisma and salesmanship, Cannon was able to raise $20,000 to fund his newly created Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company.
Within a few months, Cannon had finished his contraption, which donned a huge fabric canopy and eight wheels. If all worked as planned, a small gasoline engine would turn the wheels, which would rotate connected paddles and thereby push air into the canopy and lift the pilot off the ground.
As the story goes, one afternoon in 1902, two shop employees were testing the aircraft when the unthinkable happened: It flew! The airship carried unsuspecting pilot Gus Stamps about 160 feet at an altitude of 10 to 15 feet. Fearing the machine was about to crash, the pilot shut off the engine, cleared a fence and landed safely in a nearby field.
The event was allegedly witnessed only by the shop workers and a couple of children who happened to be walking by. Not even Cannon saw the flight, as he was busy preaching at a local church. To keep the developments secret until the proper time, nobody spoke publicly of the flight. No photographs were taken and no newspaper stories were written.
Cannon’s grand idea was to transport the airship to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. However, while the craft sat on a railcar near Texarkana, a thunderous storm passed through and laid the airship to waste.
Since that series of events, the debate has raged on. The young children who witnessed the flight eventually became old and, until their passing, never ceased sharing the story of how they saw the great airship fly. Cannon did attempt to rebuild the machine, but in 1913, his second model crashed into a utility pole and that was the end.
Is it true? Well, you know Texans never let the facts get in the way of a good story. However, if you ask the locals whether or not the airship flew on that eventful day in 1902, they’ll tell you that “if grandma said it flew, then it definitely flew!” And that’s good enough for me. Because if you can’t trust grandma, who can you trust?
Chet Garner shares his Texplorations as the host of The Daytripper on PBS.