An East Texas preacher applied for a patent on May 31, 1901 for his scripture inspired flying machine.
When not tending his flock in Pittsburg, Rev. Burrell Cannon tinkered away the hours in his cluttered workshop. Consumed by the centuries-old challenge of heavier-than-air flight, the amateur inventor created a craft to conquer the clouds.
The unlikely source of his scientific brainstorm was the Old Testament. “When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them,” read a puzzling passage from Ezekiel that caught his eye. “When the living creatures left the ground, the wheels too left the ground.”
The Baptist minister believed with all his heart and soul that the prophet’s vision of the “chariot of Yahweh” was an actual close encounter with a manned machine capable of controlled flight. He devoted decades to deciphering the inscrutable description in order to copy the heavenly airplane.
By the turn of the century, Cannon had turned his biblical blueprint into an impressive scale model. Although the patent office rejected his application, the single-minded minister plunged ahead with his ambitious plan to build a full-size version of the Ezekiel Airship.
The pious promoter persuaded 11 local businessmen to invest $20,000 in the unusual project. While the stockholders undoubtedly considered two other Cannon creations — a windmill and a ship propeller — better risks, it was his bizarre airship the man of the cloth was determined to get off the ground.
As the Ezekiel slowly took shape at a Pittsburg foundry in the spring of 1902, the curious came by for an innocent peek at the contraption. Mistaking the harmless spectators for spies sent by the Wright brothers and other rivals, the paranoid preacher declared the place off-limits.
In its final form, the Ezekiel looked more like a primitive helicopter than an awkward prototype of the modern airplane. A small kerosene engine powered fan-like blades inside four huge metal wheels. After a vertical take-off, the pilot supposedly steered the 21-by-26-foot ship by changing the angle of the blades.
The construction of the Ezekiel is a well documented fact. However, claims that the man-made albatross ever flew have never been confirmed.
Nevertheless, many East Texans insist their ancestors witnessed the maiden flight of the Ezekiel Airship in late 1902 or early 1903. If this timetable is correct, Cannon beat the Wrights, who did not pull off their famous flying feat at Kitty Hawk until December 1903, by at least nine months.
First-hand accounts agree that a machinist named Stamps instead of the middle-aged creator was at the controls for the long-awaited test. Whether Cannon was even present is open to question since some stories have Stamps taking a secret spin without the inventor’s knowledge or permission.
At a tree-limb altitude of ten feet, the eager aviator reportedly flew the Ezekiel 20 to 55 yards before suddenly losing his nerve. Panic-stricken Stamp cut the engine and landed safely in a soft field.
Several months later, Rev. Cannon loaded his precious pride-and-joy onto a railroad flatcar for a trip to St. Louis. He intended to put the controversial craft on public display in the hope of attracting new investors.
But the Ezekiel did not get out of the Lone Star State in one piece. A freak storm on the outskirts of Texarkana ripped the airship from its moorings and pulverized the preacher’s lifework.
Despite this demoralizing disaster, the resilient reverend returned to the drawing board. Shunned by badly burned backers, he had to rely on his own meager resources to fund the development of another airship.
There are reports, again unverified, that Cannon savored a second spectacular success in 1913. But soon after all of his plans were lost in a 1922 fire, the unlucky inventor died in obscurity.
Half a century later, Pittsburg residents began lobbying for recognition of Rev. Cannon’s alleged achievements. Their campaign convinced the Texas Historical Commission to erect a marker in 1976 at the purported site of the one and only flight of the Ezekiel Airship. Then in June 1989, the Texas legislature officially certified the Ezekiel as “the state’s first successful self-powered aircraft.”
Nice sentiments, to be sure, but hollow gestures don’t make it so. Rev. Burrell Cannon cannot complete a three-point landing in the history books on just a wing and a prayer. Hard evidence of his airborne achievement is required before he can take his place alongside Wilbur and Orville Wright.
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