Two Wings and a Prayer

One hundred years ago, in the tiny East Texas town of Pittsburg, the Reverend Burrell Cannon interpreted apocalyptic words in the Bible as instructions to build a flying machine. And he succeeded, sort of. Are the history books wrong about who was first in flight?

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE word, and it told reverend Burrell Cannon to do something crazy. The source was Ezekiel, one of the old-time prophets of the Bible, who spoke of a vision of four winged humanoid creatures joined as one in a square, each facing outward like superheroes, and emerging from a fiery windstorm. Each being had four faces—a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle—and they were as bright as fire, flashing like lightning. “And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.” The creatures rode in a chariot whose wheels were—this was the most important part of the vision—”like a wheel inside a wheel,” and stretching over it all was an arch and a throne: a chariot of the Lord.

If you’re going to become obsessed with a vision, the Book of Ezekiel is a good place to start. Cannon, a late-nineteenth-century East Texas preacher, spent more than fifteen years poring over its ancient, inscrutable words, so arcane, according to fourth-century biblical scholar Saint Jerome, that in the old days Jews under thirty weren’t allowed to read them. He understood that the Book of Ezekiel was sometimes read along with Revelation to foretell the Apocalypse. His own interpretation was less fiery but almost as astounding: a blueprint for man to fly, to get a little closer to heaven—and to make a little money. By the time the reverend, who was also a sawmill operator and an inventor, began building his Ezekiel Airship in a Pittsburg machine shop, in 1900, he had mapped out every spar, wheel, and wing that Ezekiel had revealed, and he had attracted dozens of investors, aiming to cash in on the most important invention of the impending modern age. Cannon finished the airship two years later, a giant flying machine with a 26-foot wingspan and wheels inside wheels, more Jules Verne than Old Testament.

And then, according to several witnesses, the thing flew. In 1922 a guy named Gus Stamps, who had worked on the airship, told the story of its flight just before he died to Morris Thorsell, the eldest son of the man who ran the machine shop. Fifty years after that, just before he died, Thorsell related the tale to Pittsburg historian Lacy Davis. Three decades later, one hundred years after that virgin flight, Davis told me what happened. It seems that in late 1902, a handful of men who had worked on the airship took it out for a test flight in a nearby pasture. “Stamps was elected to fly the thing,” Davis said. “He got in, started it up. It lurched forward, rose up to about ten to twelve feet, then began to more or less drift toward a fence. Then the engine began vibrating and Stamps cut it off. The airship came to rest about one hundred sixty feet away.” According to the Stamps account, Cannon wasn’t there; it was apparently a Sunday, and he was off preaching.

Others corroborated Stamps’s account, from turn-of-the-century Pittsburg children to Cannon family descendants who had heard the airship’s story passed down for several generations. Much of what we know, or think we know, about the Ezekiel, as they call it in Pittsburg, a town about 120 miles east of Dallas, comes from stories like these, twice- and thrice-told tales several steps removed from their source. The stories are believable in their sincerity, and they call into question one of the most monumental feats in American history. In December 2003 celebrations will take place all over the country to commemorate the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Is it possible that a man living in East Texas, taking his instructions from a man in Babylon, beat them to the sky a year earlier?

BURRELL CANNON WAS BORN APRIL 16, 1848, on a farm near Coffeeville, Mississippi, where he grew up working with wood, steel, and machines. Later, he studied mechanics at Mississippi College in Clinton and became a Baptist preacher. At age thirty, he left Mississippi for Longview to start a timber business, eventually moving all over northeast Texas, cutting trees and milling logs, preaching, and tinkering with small inventions. In 1896 he wrote to Mary Cannon, a niece in Mississippi whom he had never met, telling her that he’d been married four times and had two children; “Have been rich twice but poor now. Am going into business again soon with hopes for the future.” By this point he already had two patents—for a machine that cleaned cotton and a butter churn dasher—but he had much bigger ideas.

It was the late-nineteenth century, and the frontier was no longer out west but in the sky. For years inventors had played with handheld feathered wings, balloons, dirigibles, and gliders, but now the race was on to build the first aeroplane or airship powered by an engine and controlled by a pilot. Texas had its pioneers, mainly Jacob Brodbeck, a German immigrant who some said flew a spring-powered airship in San Antonio in 1865, and William Custead, who perhaps flew a balloon cum boat with wings at Elm Mott, near Waco, in 1899. But while most aviation innovators, like Brodbeck, studied birds for inspiration, Cannon was studying the writings of a prophet.

He had been parsing chapters 1 and 10 of Ezekiel, using them word for word as instructions. For example, the purpose of the four faces in the vision, he posited in a handbill that he later distributed, “must be to designate the various parts of the airship, so an engineer could direct to any part for repairs.” The emphasis on “spirit” was obviously electricity, and the arch was no doubt a sail or a wing. The most important feature was the wheel inside the wheel, “the wonder that makes aerial navigation possible.” Cannon built some eight to ten airship models, all of which had big outer wheels that were meant to be

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