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Local inventor beat Wright brothers, Texas townsfolk say

Minister turned to Bible for design inspiration

A replica of the aircraft hangs in a museum in Pittsburg, Texas.
A replica of the aircraft hangs in a museum in Pittsburg, Texas.

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CNN's Bruce Burkhardt explains the hubbub about who was the first to fly -- the Wright brothers or an unsung minister from Texas. (December 17)
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PITTSBURG, Texas (CNN) -- As the world marked the 99th anniversary Tuesday of the Wright brothers' first manned flight, folks in the tiny Texas town of Pittsburg say a local minister invented the first manned aircraft, dubbing it the Ezekiel Airship.

Local legend has it that Ezekiel flew in 1902, a year before the Wrights' 12-second flight on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Pittsburg Mayor D.H. Abernathy -- who was born nine years after the Wright flight -- says he has heard tales all his life about Ezekiel, a contraption made of white canvas attached to a frame and driven by a gasoline-powered engine.

"We have people that have testified that they saw this Ezekiel Airship fly," Abernathy said.

The little-known story is getting a wider audience thanks to authors John Holman and Lacy Davis, a pair of Pittsburg natives who have penned a book on the airship titled "On the Wings of Ezekiel."

Ezekiel was the brainchild of the Rev. Burrell Cannon, a Baptist minister and sawmill operator who -- at the turn of the last century, when Pittsburg was a booming cotton town -- set to work on a flying machine.

Legend has it that the Ezekiel Airship flew only once.
Legend has it that the Ezekiel Airship flew only once.

Because the reverend saw the project as a mission from God, he turned to the Bible for design inspiration: The name of the aircraft came from the Bible, as did the machine's appearance.

The ancient scripture tells of a man named Ezekiel who writes that he saw four creatures descend from the sky in machines that appeared to be wheels within wheels.

"And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them," the Bible reports in Ezekiel 1:19. "And when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up."

In 1986, Pittsburg craftsman Bob Lowery built a replica, using a photograph of the original and newspaper accounts as points of reference.

"It's supposed to create its own lift by throwing the air into the canvas," Lowery said. "This is built more or less like a kite."

start quoteAnd 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.end quote
-- Ezekiel 1:19

The replica is on display in the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum in Pittsburg.

A woman known around town as Miss Cleo -- a granddaughter of the Rev. Cannon -- said she recalls hearing stories about the machine's final flight. "I just remember her saying it flew over a fence, hit the ground, and that was it," she said. "I don't think they tried anymore."

The machine was en route to an exhibition in St. Louis, Missouri, when a storm blew it off its train flatcar and destroyed it, according to the museum Web site.

Although Ezekiel's amateur inventor apparently gave up on creating a flying machine, Cannon was working on a cotton picker and boll weevil destroyer at the time of his death in 1923 at age 74, according to the museum's Web site.

Descendants of the Wright brothers can rest assured that the pair's place in aeronautical history is safe.

Manned flight historians have discounted claims that the Ezekiel Airship was the first successful manned aircraft for three reasons: "Now we can argue about it being controlled flight and repeatable and documented," Holman said. "And that gives credit to the Wrights, and they deserve it."



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