First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation

First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation

by Thomas C. Parramore


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First to Fly: North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation by Thomas C. Parramore

A remarkable story filled with dreamers, inventors, scoundrels, and pioneering pilots, First to Fly recounts North Carolina's significant role in the early history of aviation. Beginning well before the Wright brothers' first powered flight at Kill Devil Hill in 1903, North Carolinians labored at the cutting edge of aviation technology from the late 1800s through World War I.

North Carolina was a launching ground for real and imaginary ballooning adventures as early as 1789. Powered experiments, including what seems to have been America's first airplane, gained momentum in the late nineteenth century. Tar Heel mechanics and inventors also built a dirigible and, arguably, the world's first successful helicopter.

Tom Parramore's account of the Wrights' experiments and turn-of-the-century Dare County provides new information on the crucial role of Outer Bankers in ensuring the Wrights' success. Without this aid, he argues, it is unlikely that the miracle of flight would have first been achieved in 1903—or in America. After 1903, growth in the new aviation industry, spurred by World War I, outpaced North Carolina's ability to play a major role. But the state produced some of the most notable airmen and women of the era, furnishing hundreds of pilots to the war effort.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807854709
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 05/19/2003
Edition description: 1
Pages: 388
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Thomas C. Parramore (1932-2004) taught history at Meredith College in Raleigh and was author of numerous books, including Norfolk: The First Four Centuries.

Read an Excerpt

First to Fly

North Carolina and the Beginnings of Aviation
By Thomas C. Parramore

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2003 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5470-9

Chapter One

To Snatch the Secret from the Womb of Time

The Conjurer's Decree

No grander quest has inspired mankind, no greater single achievement blessed its efforts, than the ability of humans to fly. The twentieth century, for all its cruelty and suffering, stands forth in the annals of history for its conquest of powered flight, the glory, indeed, of the Second Millennium. Well before the century ended, flight rewove the fabric of human life, altered our perceptions of time and space, and galvanized and exalted our faith and self-confidence in what is to come.

For three decades before and two more after 1903, North Carolina could, but did not, claim to stand at the forefront of aviation's advance. The reason no such claim was made is that the state did not realize that it was entitled to do so. The evidence for these contentions comes in many forms and was signified two centuries before the first flight was performed.

Explorer John Lawson traveled to Carolina mainly to glean information useful to the colony's English proprietors. The splendid book he published in 1709, A New Voyage to Carolina, revealed a treasure of data on the settlement's climate, geography, soils, minerals, flora, fauna, and inhabitants. It was especially interesting for its intimate glimpses of Carolina's aborigines, their customs and beliefs, arts and crafts, and patterns of living.

Around 1708 Lawson visited several Native American tribes of the Albemarle Sound area. Although a thorough rationalist by training and predilection, he was charmed by stories of folkways and the occult among these Native Americans and passed on many representative tales. Clients of Tuscarora tradesmen, he wrote, bought liquor by the mouthful, usually with the collaboration of the man with the largest mouth; the exceptional marksmanship of the Flatheads came from strapping their infants' heads to boards so tightly that their eyes bulged, making them splendid hunters.

An extraordinary tale of the supernatural concerned the celebrated "great Conjurer," a Chowan Indian named Roncommock, perhaps still alive in 1709. "Persons that affirm they were Eye-Witnesses," wrote Lawson, insisted that they had seen Roncommock "take a Reed about two Foot long in his Mouth, and stand by a Creek-side, where he call'd twice or thrice with the Reed ...; and, at last, has open'd his Arms, and fled over [Salmon] Creek, which might be near a quarter of a Mile wide or more."

This wonderful feat, deemed "seemingly true" by the worldly Lawson, was allegedly performed on the plantation of former governor Seth Sothel, himself a proprietor of the Carolina colony, at the mouth of Salmon Creek in Bertie County. It was also the site of the first English house built in North Carolina. Bertie happens to be the birthplace of a poet whose verse was among the first, if not the first, to celebrate the advent of powered flight in America. Forty miles north of Salmon Creek, North Carolina's first airplane was built and tested. Eighty miles southeast, humankind's first helicopter lifted vertically off the ground.

The birthplace of an aviator who built and flew a biplane and, a quarter century later, patented an enormous flying-wing airliner is eighty miles northwest; that of a pioneer of the automatic pilot in planes and rockets, thirty-eight miles northwest. Seventy miles north, Norfolk, Virginia, witnessed the first flight from a ship's deck. And at a barren sand dune sixty miles due east of Salmon Creek, a balding young man, on December 17, 1903, flew a motored stick-and-rag biplane for twelve seconds.

"Witnesses" to Roncommock's flights harbored no doubt that humans could fly-if they possessed the Conjurer's secret. How to acquire or fabricate that power was what French gliderman Louis Pierre Mouillard termed the "tyrant thought" that ruled over humankind for two centuries after Roncommock's time and still impels us relentlessly toward the infinite. The magical reed can be said to symbolize a quest that began long before the Conjurer's day and continues today. It is nothing less than our emergent hope of navigating the solar system as readily as we do the paths and sea-lanes of our native planet. Roncommock's reed challenges us to burst Earth's coils and soar-in body as well as spirit-to the outermost reaches of the universe, the innermost depths of our being. The site where the Conjurer flew is the epicenter of a region where humankind was baptized in the transcendent experience of both horizontal and vertical powered flight.

The ability of humans to fly, a goal finally achieved in North Carolina, summoned forth, between 1909 and the end of World War I, the greatest surge of mechanical creativity and individual achievement in the state's and the nation's history. The artisans who aspired to fly and the warriors who set out in 1914 to meet enemies in an utterly new medium of battle shared a common spirit of courage and experimentation.

The tale that follows deals with humankind's earliest attempts to break the bonds of gravity, to master resisting winds and subdue foreboding skies. It is a story that began, in its practical phase, longer before than since the flights at Kill Devil Hill. North Carolina was "first in flight" (as its license plates boldly declare) well before the Wright brothers' success in Kitty Hawk confirmed what was ordained by Roncommock's mysterious reed.

Ancient legend teems with exploits of flying humans. That a Daedalus or an Icarus tried to escape on waxen wings from Minoan Crete and its fabled labyrinth is, like a hundred such tales, a myth. But sound authority holds that Archytas of Tarentum, in fourth-century-b.c. Greece, experimented with kites and toy flying machines, including a wooden dove that flew by "the secret blowing of air enclosed inside," perhaps a primitive compressed-air mechanism.

Attempts to fly are impressively recorded in Medieval and Renaissance literature. They include a flight with artificial wings for a distance of "125 paces" by an eleventh-century English monk, Oliver of Malmesbury. A Saracen of twelfth-century Constantinople crashed after skydiving with counterfeit wings from the top of a tower. Leonardo Da Vinci sketched numerous flying machines in the fifteenth century, and in the early sixteenth an Italian is said to have broken a leg trying to fly on cock-feather wings from Scotland to France. These men did not believe that they were on a fool's errand. If humans could walk like apes and swim like fish, they could learn to fly like birds. Roncommock may have foretold with his reed that the vault of his secret would someday be unlocked-in his own bailiwick-and swing open for all humanity.

Meanwhile, imagination ventured boldly where reality dared yet tread. Englishman Francis Godwin in 1641 spun a tale, The Man in the Moon, of a Spaniard borne aloft in a car drawn by swans. Another, Samuel Blunt, in 1727 wrote his whimsical Voyage to Cacklogallinia, in which an aeronaut's car, pulled by roosters, flies (like Godwin's hero for chicken feed) from Jamaica to various countries. Tales of this sort grew more realistic as experimenters made the first tentative progress toward mastering the art of flight. The Discovery of the South by a Flying Man, by Frenchman Restif de La Bretonne in the 1770s, thus bears its hero on mechanical wings worked by springs. Once flying was understood to be a feasible technological challenge, solutions were not far off.

After 1783, when French balloonists succeeded in breaking earth's bonds, there was no need to limit tales of human flight to mere fancy. A German writer, in 1789, wrote what seems to have been the first novel founded on the new reality of human flight. His name was Johann W. A. Schofel, and his tale was entitled Hirum-Harum: Ein Satirsch-komischer Original-Roman (A Satiric-Comic Novel).

In company with pioneer French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the central character builds a balloon in which he flies alone from Paris to North America. After many adventures, he crashes just outside the village of Salem (now Winston-Salem) and is conveniently rescued by German-speaking Moravian settlers. Schofel even cites a fictional Salem printer of that era as his book's publisher.

Caxton's Ode

Powered flight, like manned flight, began in France. In 1852 Henri Giffard briefly flew his steam-driven dirigible (i.e., steerable) balloon over Paris. Another flight with such a machine was made in California in 1869; the Avitor Hermes Jr. was the work of transplanted Englishman Frederick Marriott. (Hermes was the Greek God of astronomy, avitor a form of the term "aviator.") On July 2, 1869, it made an unmanned flight of a mile at San Jose's Shellmount Park racetrack, the first powered flight in America.

Among the invited spectators that day was Judge William Henry Rhodes, a native of Windsor, in Bertie County, who had written poems and stories since childhood and then exploited his skill in the West. Two of his poems, both published in anticipation of the dirigible's flight, were among the earliest American celebrations in verse of Marriott's work, perhaps even the first inspired by the new reality of powered flight.

Rhodes was born in Bertie in 1822 and received his higher education at Princeton and Harvard Colleges. After graduating in law from Harvard, he opened a practice at Windsor, near the head of Roncommock's Salmon Creek. When his father, Colonel Elisha A. Rhodes, was named U.S. consul to the Republic of Texas in 1838, the son joined him there before following the Gold Rush to California. Prior to leaving Texas, Rhodes won literary notice with the publication in 1846 of a small volume entitled The Indian Gallows, and other Poems. Its selections included legends of Indians, pirates, and others from his North Carolina past. In California, where he became a probate judge and gubernatorial private secretary, Rhodes earned acclaim with his short stories, written under the pen name "Caxton." He was especially admired for his science fiction, including tales of flying experiments and adventures, a genre in which he became a recognized pioneer.

Marriott's machine was an extension of his earlier work as an associate of the gifted English aerial experimenters John Stringfellow and William Henson. Avitor Hermes Jr. was a thirty-seven-foot hydrogen-filled airship with wings of cloth-covered wire, a steam engine, rear elevator, and rudder. Rhodes first honored Marriott's work in a poem published in a San Francisco newspaper in early 1867. Entitled "The Avitor," it heralds the flying machine not simply as a revolutionary mode of travel but, astutely, as a means to emancipate the human psyche, a theme destined to appeal to generations of poets to come. The future of flight, he predicts, will be grand beyond any of humankind's previous achievements:

Hurrah for the wings that never tire- For the nerves that never quail; For the heart that beats in a bosom of fire- For the lungs whose cast-iron lobes respire Where the eagle's breath would fail.

Airships, the poet foresees, will speed immigration to the American West:

Sierra Nevada's shroud of snow And Utah's desert of sand Shall never again turn backward the flow Of that human tide that may come and go To the vales of the sunset land ...

And, he predicts, airships will foster geographic discovery:

No longer shall earth with her secrets beguile, For I, with undazzled eyes, Will trace to their sources the Niger and Nile, And stand without dread on the boreal isle, The Colon of the skies!

Rhodes's clairvoyance is shown to even better advantage in lines he penned and published in March 1867 to hail Marriott's unfinished Hermes, a second dirigible. Here, he anticipates that aircraft will someday become the means for scientific probing of the extent and nature of the universe:

An ocean rolls, whose billows never rest, Whose depth no plummet sounds, whose width no eye, The landless, shoreless ocean of the sky. Up on those waves see "Hermes" climb, To snatch the secret from the womb of time!

That electronic planets would one day circle the earth, bearing male and female crews of multiple nations and races, is testimony to Rhodes's foresight:

Henceforth our race are brothers here below, Henceforth fraternal blood shall cease to flow; No hate shall thrive upon a mountain chain, For mountains now are level with the plain; ... No quarrels mingle with the ocean's roar; the hermes floats, and oceans are no more.

Rhodes died in San Francisco in 1876, leaving a widow and seven children. In the twentieth century he has received belated recognition as a midwife of science fiction but not yet the credit he deserves as a prophet of flight, space travel, and their meaning for humankind. A true herald of the sorcerer, he acknowledged in another poem "[t]he tawny native of the Indian clime / First in the Race of Science and of time."

In North Carolina, as early as the 1870s, Frederick Proctor, an Elizabeth City eccentric, was noted locally for predicting horseless carriages, undersea boats, and "ships ... that sail in the air." In 1902 journalist W. O. Saunders recalled Proctor's exotic expectations and noted that, all those things having come to pass, "people who have not forgotten him feel repentant now that they should have treated his talk with so little credence." Elizabeth City is only forty miles from the spot where Proctor's boldest dream came true.

Robert Frost was a lovelorn New Englander when, in 1894, he visited the fabled Outer Banks and experienced, on Kitty Hawk beach, the seductive symphony of wind, waves, waterfowl, and blowing sand. In his poem "Kitty Hawk, O Kitty Hawk" (1953), he recalls:

Little I imagined Men would treat this sky Someday to a pageant Like a thousand birds.

But planes and spaceflight became a leading theme of his poetry. At President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, Frost, as the nation's poet laureate, challenged the new president to follow in the steps of Wilbur and Orville Wright "as models of excellence." Two months later Kennedy convened a special session of Congress to seek a greatly enhanced space program. On July 20, 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon, bearing with him a piece of wing cloth from the 1903 Wright Flyer.

An accumulation of portents and predictions, then, pointed, long before 1903, an arrow from Roncommock's quiver toward Kitty Hawk as the venue for the great transformation. From Kitty Hawk beach, Frost distilled the inspiration that may, at a critical moment, have rallied a tepid American space program, leading to the first moon landing.

The Gift of the Martians

By the closing years of the nineteenth century, reports of experimenters actually flying their machines, or making promising attempts to do so, were so frequent that the public could be excused for supposing that practical flight was near at hand. Dirigibles, especially, were having limited success in overcoming the conundrums of aerial steering and stability. The federal government invested $50,000 in heavier-than-air experiments conducted on the Potomac River by Smithsonian Institution secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley. That ordinary people were ripe for stunning success in aviation, however much some pundits might deny the possibility, was revealed in the 1896-97 excitement over unidentified flying objects (UFOs), America's first such mass phenomenon.

Beginning in California in the fall of 1896, thousands of people from coast to coast reported seeing cigar-shaped or cylindrical flying objects, some with airscrews or propellers, flashing colored lights and emitting music, hissing sounds, voices, and so on as they passed. The evidence was too widespread to be lightly dismissed. Six beings were said to have emerged from such a craft in Illinois and offered a ride to an earthling, who, perhaps to our grievous loss, declined. In Arkansas, a state senator named Smith reportedly drew up a bill to levy a tariff on a UFO "flying through the air of the great state of Arkansas, ... without paying taxes." Populist governor John Leedy of Kansas hoped that the monopolistic tyranny of railroads might be undercut by the new floating highways in the sky.

A photograph showed an airborne flying machine near Chicago, but, regrettably, it proved to be deftly painted on canvas. Joseph Joslin of St. Louis was allegedly seized by creatures from a UFO and held captive for three weeks, though evidently gaining no enlightenment from his experience. On April 17, 1897, an airship reportedly crashed into an Aurora, Texas, windmill, killing its unknown pilot, whose corpse was interred at a public funeral! A resident of Washington State claimed to have started the furor by releasing a pelican with a Japanese lantern tied to its leg.


Excerpted from First to Fly by Thomas C. Parramore Copyright © 2003 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1To Snatch the Secret from the Womb of Time1
2Fire in the Belly21
3Early Birds45
4As the Surfmen Tell It65
5The Demon of Hill Thirteen97
6The Early Whirlies113
7Kiwis and Eagles129
8The Exhibitionists161
9The Lafayette Escadrille187
10Gory Glory, Hallelujah219
11The Greatest Pilot on Earth245
12The Lighthouse Keeper's Tale271

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

This remarkable local history begins not with Icarus, but with an Indian conjuror named Roncommock, who was reported to fly in Bertie County in the early 1700s. Parramore continues his eventful account of flight from 1700 till 1930 in his home state with dozens of lesser- and better-known figures and their generally lesser-known aeroplanes. Lots of photographs.—Leonard E. Opdycke, publisher of WWI Aero and Skyways

Parramore's readable volume discusses balloons, airships, and airplanes and is a well-crafted, welcome addition that adds new perspective to both North Carolina and aviation history.—North Carolina Historical Review

Parramore catches the exuberance of the 'birdman' era of the years prior to WWI and does a good job of capturing the spirit of adventure that led many well-intentioned young men to join the Lafayette Escadrille during the Great War.—Choice

While First to Fly will certainly appeal to aviation buffs and devotees of North Carolina history, it is also a fascinating tale of American ingenuity, bravery, and determination.—American History

Parramore's work is a delightful story of the place of North Carolina in the early days of flight. . . . Chock full of amusing anecdotes, this charming book is a must-read for students of early aviation and anyone who would like to know more about the history of aviation and technology in North Carolina.—Historian

Parramore easily achieves his goal of convincing the reader that North Carolina and North Carolinians played a considerable role in the early history of flight.—Thomas D. Crouch, Senior Curator, National Air and Space Museum

Parramore traces how dreams of flight became a reality in our state around the turn of the 20th century. . . . Thoroughly researched.—Our State

A delight of Thomas C. Parramore's First to Fly is its movement from one good story to another, its lack of aeronautical jargon, and its dependence on character and tale to offer engaging history. . . . First to Fly climbs high, lands smoothly, teaches us about ourselves. . . . Parramore has discovered a buried North Carolina aviation legacy.—Clyde Edgerton, Raleigh News & Observer

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