texasmonthly.com: How did you learn about Reverend Burrell Cannon and his Ezekiel Airship?
Michael Hall: A friend told me about a Baptist preacher who flew in East Texas in 1902. I thought my friend was crazy and then I went online and found a bunch of stories about Cannon, but they all pretty much gave the same incomplete information.
texasmonthly.com: How'd you go about researching and reporting this story, given that many of the primary figures are no longer around?
MH: I was lucky that a guy named John Holman, a local Pittsburg amateur historian, had compiled every story ever written about the airship as well as all kinds of other research: interviews with second-hand witnesses and Cannon family members, copies of Cannon's patent applications, photos, etc. Then I went up to Pittsburg for a couple of days to see the replica and talk to townspeople. The museum had a book signing for Holman's book, so I got to meet a lot of the interested parties there.
texasmonthly.com: What's Pittsburg like?
MH: It's a real clean, pretty town in northeast Texas. Everyone seems to have a job because of Bo Pilgrim's chicken empire—everywhere you go you see the name Pilgrim. The town was named an official Texas Main Street City by the state Historical Commission, which means, I think, that they get money to further beautify an already pretty town. I had heard it was smelly because of the chicken plants, but it wasn't so bad.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, how well-known is this story? How is it received in Pittsburg?
MH: Aviation people have heard about it, but I was surprised how few Texana experts knew anything about it. In Pittsburg they're very proud of the airship, though as I point out in my story, a generation ago they didn't talk much about it.
texasmonthly.com: What's it like to see the replica of the airship?
MH: I walked into the museum and looked up and just got the biggest grin on my face—it's just so huge and strange and... up there. If you walk into the Smithsonian they've got originals and replicas of all these great old historical planes everybody's heard of like Lindbergh's—here it's so cool because the Ezekiel is just so bizarre and you feel like you've stumbled in on some secret.
texasmonthly.com: This piece was sad in a way I wasn't expecting. Did you find that?
MH: It is a sad story—Cannon died poor and unfulfilled, his dream literally in pieces, and he was ignored or hated by the people he had worked with. But I don't think he was a failure. He dreamed impossibly and then devoted himself to it completely—how many of us really do that?
texasmonthly.com: So in your opinion, did Reverend Cannon beat the Wright brothers as first-in-flight?
MH: I have to hew to the party line—he flew but it wasn't controlled flight. Those dreary little Ohioans beat him to it.