Between 1900 and 1901, the Wright Brothers gained notoriety by being the first to fly gliders with little or no control. In 1902 the Wright Glider, the first unpowered aircraft to have controls for roll, pitch, and yaw, was off the ground and gliding through the air. By 1905, the famous brothers had perfected engine powered flight on the soft beaches of Kitty Hawk and paved the way for modern day flight. Wilbur Wright has stated years earlier, "I am convinced that human flight is possible and practical". Wilbur was correct beyond imagination. World renowned, they experienced success beyond their wildest dreams and etched their story into the history books. But some grumbled that in a small, rural East Texas town, a Baptist minister flew one year before the Wright Brothers and should have rightly taken their place in the history books…
Little documentation exists of Burrell Cannon’s endeavor although several news articles ran in area newspapers during the construction of the supposed airship. Cloaked under a veil of secrecy, Cannon left behind no blueprints, no photos of the flight, and no remains of the craft that many claim he built. All that remains is a single photo of the airplane as it stood on wooden stands during construction. But, dozens of witnesses claimed to have actually seen the flight in 1901 – one year before the Wright Brothers flew their famous engine powered machine at Kitty Hawk.
Reverend Burrell Cannon, was born in 1848 in Coffeeville Mississippi. His father, a tinkerer by heart, patented about 6 inventions, including a marine propeller, a wind driven water pump, and a specialized camera. Burrell followed in his father’s footsteps and continued the family tradition of creating ingenious inventions.
Burrell, deeply involved in the lumber industry, moved his family to the East Texas town of Pittsburgh, in order to take advantage of the virgin lumber trade there. He purchased and ran a lumber mill in nearby Pine, Texas. At that time, Pittsburgh was a large cotton town of 4,300 people. Located at the corner of present-day Highway 271 and State Highway 11, Pittsburgh was and still is the largest town in the county.
While working in the lumber mill, Burrell acted as the area’s Baptist minister. Capable of speaking 8 languages, Burrell preached in area school houses and local community centers. He was 52 years old in 1900 when he first told friends and family that he believed he was to be led by God to build the world’s first airplane. He quoted the relevant text in the book of Ezekiel that provided the basis and blueprint for the spaceship he intended to build:
“Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the color of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.”
Burrell told everyone he was going to call his invention the "Ezekiel Airship".
To begin his dream, Burrell sold the mill in Pine, Texas and used the proceeds to incorporate the Ezekiel Airship Manufacturing Company in 1901. He then sold 800 stock certificates (see picture) for $25.00 each in order to raise the $20,000 dollars needed to fund the endeavor. Interested parties gobbled up the shares, each wanting to be a part of history. Burrell immediately hired three full-time employees to assist in building the aircraft.
Burrell then leased the upper floor of a nearby foundry owned by P. W. Thorsell. It was in the top floor of the foundry that Burrell designed and built the craft. Weighing 850 pounds, the 26 foot wide machine looked more like a glider or kite. Burrell constructed a rigid metal frame and layered it with light-weight sail cloth. The mechanical structure was located beneath the huge, circular shaped wings. Burrell’s notes and eyewitness descriptions indicate that the machine was powered by 4 interlocking wheels. The larger wheels, about 8 foot in diameter, worked in tandem with two smaller, faster turning wheels. Paddles, similar to the paddles on a steam boat, were controlled by levers. The paddles pivoted in order to control the angle of attack and hence adjust the amount of airflow in order to turn and guide the craft through the air. A gas engine (nobody is sure if the engine was powered by gasoline or natural gas) turned the wheels on the machine and provided the necessary propulsive forces. The 4 cylinder, 80 horsepower engine was custom built by Burrell himself.
After one year, the craft, capable of carrying a single pilot, was ready for its maiden voyage. Burrell took the machine to a nearby pasture (now a present day Butane distribution yard) to test it. Concerned with weight limits, the smallest of Burrell’s employees, Gus Stamps (who must have been an extraordinarily loyal employee), was chosen to fly the airplane on its maiden voyage. Gus fired up the engines and taxied for takeoff (the aircraft was to take off like a modern day airplane but land like a helicopter). After a few hundred feet, the craft built up enough speed and left the ground. It reached a height of 10 feet and for several seconds it flew the distance of 167 feet. Gus, who of course was a rookie pilot, was alarmed by the vibration and racket of the gas engines. He decided to land the plane quickly because it was approaching a large wooden fence on which children were perched in order to watch the amazing historical flight. A dozen or so witnesses erupted in cheers as the airplane touched down and Gus triumphantly leapt to the ground.
Within a few days, the Ezekiel Airship was loaded on a flat bed rail car to be delivered to Texarkana where Cannon was to give a speech and unveil the airplane to the public. It is believed that from there the craft was to be delivered to St. Louis where the 1903 World Fair was about to take place. But alas, fate reared its ugly head and the airship never made it off the train. In fact, it never made it from the rail yard.
A storm blew into Pittsburgh that night, with wind gusts so strong that the train was derailed as it sat waiting to depart. The airship was completely destroyed. Burrell’s resources completely exhausted, the financial backers refused to pony up more funds to build a new craft and Burrell’s enormous contribution to mankind was left adrift.
10 years later, in 1911, after airplanes were already being routinely flown, Burrell once again sold stock and obtained funds needed to build a second airship. As before, the craft was quickly constructed but this time the maiden flight did not go as well. The plane took off fine but barely grazed the top of a utility pole as it soared above the ground. The bottom of the craft was ripped out and it subsequently crashed destroying the second airplane built by Burrell. Disheartened, Burrell was said to have exclaimed, "God never willed that this airship should fly".
Burrell lived in Pine, Texas until 1922 when he died.
Flight or Fancy?
Some claim that this first airship most certainly did fly while others claim it’s nothing more than a myth. Burrell’s family still battles today in an attempt to secure the legacy so rightly deserved by their forefather while skeptics claim the ship never flew "controlled" and hence the title of the "creator of the first airplane" still rightly belongs to the world famous brothers from Kitty Hawk.
On August 1, 1911, the following article appeared in the Dallas Morning News confirming the reports of Burrell’s accomplishment:
The best mechanical thought of all ages has been directed toward solving the question of aerial navigation with noticeable success and today in almost every country under the sun some mechanical genius is putting, forth his best efforts on the problem. In Pine, Texas, Reverend Cannon is just such a genius. The unique features of his machine, is its motive power and propelling apparatus, and the most astonishing feature of it is that the whole machine and all of its intricate parts is fully set forth in the Holy Bible. The airship was destroyed in a storm while en route on a train to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1902, and never rebuilt. Lets set the record straight for those who believe the Wright Brothers’ magnificent accomplishment at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 represents the beginning of powered flight for man. May we respectfully say: "Balderdash!"
A replica of the ship can be seen today in the small town of Pittsburgh, Texas.
Update: Engine type?
Nobody is certain where the "gas powered" engine was a gasoline engine or a natural gas motor. Construction notes do indicated though, that the fuel for the craft was ingeniously stored within the hollow metal framing. No external fuel tank was required.
Update: Final Destination?
It is believed that the final destination of the airship was the 1903 St. Louis World Fair. At that time, the fair was offering a $100,000 reward for anyone who could produce a airship capable of "sustained, controlled flight".
Reader Assistance Needed
I’ve been unable to secure copies of the original photo said to exist of the airship during its construction. If you can obtain a copy of this photo, please send it our way. Full credit will be given to the submitter and/or source.