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Footnotes in Texas History

Flights of Fancy

The Ezekiel Airship is a tangible reminder that Texans may have invented heavier-than-air flight before the Wright brothers

In a 40-foot-square room of the Depot Museum in Pittsburg, Texas, the replica of a craft hovers overhead like something out of a Jules Verne novel. A cross between a Conestoga wagon and Sally Field’s headdress in “The Flying Nun,” the Ezekiel Airship—the original was built by the Rev. Burrell Cannon—is a tangible reminder that Texans may have invented heavier-than-air flight before the Wright brothers’ 1903 takeoff landed in the pages of history.

But any discussion about early flights must start with Jacob Brodbeck, who might have been the first man to fly in an airplane.

Brodbeck moved to Texas from Germany, arriving in Fredericksburg in 1847. While the Civil War raged, he fashioned a functioning model with a rudder, wings resembling those of a modern aircraft and a propeller powered by coiled springs.

After he solicited investors to build a version that could carry a person, Brodbeck became an aeronaut. As curious onlookers watched, Brodbeck climbed into the craft’s enclosed cockpit, equipped with only a compass, barometer and boat propeller (in case he landed in water). His craft reportedly rose 12 feet, twice the height of those gawking below. It stayed aloft 100 feet—only 20 feet less than the Wrights’ later flight. Then his springs uncoiled, and he reportedly crashed into a chicken coop.

No newspaper, photographer or artist recorded the event. One popular account claims he flew September 20, 1865, in a field three miles east of Luckenbach. Some insist the site was San Antonio’s San Pedro Park. Others say it was 1868, not 1865. Brodbeck suffered no serious injuries, but the ignominious landing severely dented his public relations. 

Abandoned by his investors, he toured the United States to raise money for another attempt. With Reconstruction boiling on front pages, Brodbeck got back-burner attention. Disgruntled by lack of interest in his invention, his notes and diagrams stolen, he returned to Texas. He dismantled and buried the craft on his property near Luckenbach, where he lived until his death in 1910.

Cannon, meanwhile, was inspired by biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision of four winged creatures, each flying by a wheel within a wheel. Around 1900, the 52-year-old Cannon designed an airship that had wheels within wheels. A respected minister-machinist-mechanic with several patented wind-driven machines, he sold $20,000 worth of stock in his Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company at $25 per share to build a prototype at P.W. Thorsell’s foundry and machine shop in Pittsburg.

The airship’s semi-circular fabric top wing stretched 26 feet—the length of today’s travel trailers—over a frame of lightweight tubing with a secondary wing below. An outer pair of wooden wheels, 8 feet across, taxied the plane. A smaller, faster, inner pair of wheels contained pivoted paddles, retracted in the upper stroke to mimic the out-of-water turn of steamboat paddles. Seated between the wheels, the pilot controlled the craft with levers that maneuvered the paddles, varying speed and direction. These and four brass hydraulic cylinders allowed vertical takeoffs and landings. A custom-made 80-horsepower, four-cylinder gas engine turned the wheels and paddles, propelling this precursor of the helicopter. 

Only one known photograph exists of the machine. Cannon kept it a secret, and he probably never flew his invention. But it may have gotten off the ground. Four witnesses later came forward to confess that one Sunday morning in November 1902, while Cannon preached nearby, Gus Stamps, a worker in the foundry, decided to see what the contraption could do. He reportedly flew more than 10 feet in the air across a pasture, some say for 167 feet, before the craft began to vibrate violently and drift toward a fence. He killed the engine and brought the ship to a safe landing. Concerned about his job, Stamps and his buddies kept the amazing feat a secret for some time.

Presuming the engine too heavy for the craft to become airborne, Cannon decided to transport it on a flatbed railcar to St. Louis for possible exhibition in the World’s Fair. Near Texarkana, a storm blew it off the flatbed, wrecking it and his hope to be first at controlled flight. 

Texans eventually acknowledged these men’s accomplishments. Busts of Brodbeck stand in Fredericksburg’s Marktplatz and San Antonio’s San Pedro Park. A Texas historic marker commemorates the Ezekiel Airship’s flight. In 1987, Bob Loughery and the Pittsburg Optimist Club built the full-size replica from the photograph.

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K.A. Young is a freelance writer and member of Wood County Electric Cooperative.