North Carolina's First Aviators
North Carolina, site of the Wright brothers’ first flight, has a number of other little-known aviation firsts to its credit.
James Henry Gatling, whose brother, Richard, invented the Gatling gun, designed and constructed the first full-sized American airplane. The plane was featured in the Raleigh Daily News March 18, 1872. The inventor, a noted wine and apple brandy maker, attempted to the fly the plane only once. He took off from the top of his gin mill in the 18-foot-long contraption, and reportedly traveled 100 feet before crashing.
Tom Tate, an 11-year-old Outer Banks child, became the first Tar Heel to fly a glider on October 17, 1900. The 70-pounder was a lot lighter than Orville or Wilbur, so the Wrights used Tom as an early test pilot in their tethered glider-kite.
In 1902, the Wrights made the world’s first significant glider flights from their North Carolina airstrip.
A North Carolina man is considered by some to be the first to build and fly a helicopter. In 1907, Carteret County’s Luther Paul was able to raise his unmanned craft, called the Bumble Bee, about five feet off the floor of his barn. After a highly publicized crash involving Wilbur Wright, Paul’s worried wife convinced him to stop his experiments.
With Wilbur Wright at the stick, the first-ever passenger flight took place in North Carolina. Charles Furnas, a mechanic who worked for the Wright brothers, was the passenger on May 14, 1908. William Wallace Whitney Christmas of Warrentown, NC is credited with the invention of the hinged aileron for lateral control. He applied for the patent in 1910.
W.F. Johnson, a twenty-three-year-old Greensboro man, is the first African-American documented to design an airplane. He designed an electrically powered biplane with two pusher type propellers. His wooden model won first prize in November 1910 at the Greensboro Central Carolina Fair. An interesting footnote: Johnson worked for Judge James E. Boyd, the man who carried Robert E. Lee’s Civil War surrender to General U.S. Grant.
May 18, 1916, Asheville’s Kiffin Rockwell became the first U.S. pilot to down an enemy plane in combat. Rockwell, who flew in more than 142 aerial battles, was killed September 23, 1916 in a dogfight with German pilots. At least 16 North Carolinians died flying in World War I.
Wilmington’s Harmon Rorison, who entered the Polish Air Force after World War I, on March 5, 1920 became the first American ever to engage communist troops in combat.
Tiny Broadwick, an 80-pounder from Oxford, North Carolina, was the first female to parachute from an airplane, from a seaplane into water, and the first person to perform a free-fall jump.
Charles Lindbergh, the man who would one day make the first solo transatlantic air crossing, learned how to fly in 1923. His army instructor was William Winston from Wendell, NC.
Belvin Womble Maynard from Harrell’s Store, NC, has been called “the greatest pilot on earth.” An ordained Baptist minister and a natural born mechanic, Maynard joined the Army in 1917 and was immediately transferred to the air service. There, he served as a test pilot for every new plane the Army received. The so-called Flying Parson won the Army’s Double Transcontinental Aerial Derby, finishing the first leg in three days, three hours and five minutes. He finished five and one-half hours ahead of his closest competitor. He set a world record for the total trip of 67 hours, three minutes and 41 seconds.
Captain Robert K. Morgan of Asheville piloted the “Memphis Belle” in World War II. Named for Morgan’s wartime sweetheart, it was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions successfully with no serious injuries to the crew. Staff Sgt. Cecil H. Scott, the Memphis Belle’s ball turret gunner, was from Arapahoe, NC.
added: December 30, 2008
updated: January 2, 2009