- To Lasso the Clouds: The Beginnings of Aviation in Georgia by Dan A. Aldridge Jr.
In October 2007 Athens, Georgia, commemorated Ben T. Epps for accomplishing the first airplane flight in Georgia one hundred years previously. Dan A. Aldridge Jr. acknowledges the significance of the event for the history of aviation in Georgia, but not far into his research he found that there were no contemporary descriptions of the flight. But Aldridge uncovered numerous primary sources showing that the flight took place two years later in 1909. Using that detective story as a springboard, Aldridge focuses on the accomplishments of Epps and Zumpt Huff in building and flying airplanes in Athens, continuing with Epps and his family's involvement in commercial aviation through the 1930s.
Drawn to the dream of wings, Epps was technically savvy, was interested in bicycles, motorcycles, and automobiles, and earned a good living in the electrical business. Huff's background was in photography, which demanded knowledge of mechanics and materials. The pair's lives intersected when they worked for an Athens electric company, and their partnership culminated in the design and construction of a Wright brothers–type biplane glider in 1909. Epps and Huff followed up with a monoplane powered by an Anzani air-cooled motor the two acquired from an Atlanta bicycle shop. That attempt failed, but their third effort—another monoplane—succeeded with a short hop at Athens's Lynwood Park in August 1909, possibly the first flight of a monoplane in the United States. Epps and Huff went on to design and build a series of monoplanes resembling those of Frenchman Louis Blériot before Huff left Georgia to pursue his own career in Florida. Epps opened the first commercial airport in [End Page 453] Georgia in 1917, sold airplanes, ran an air-taxi service, and in the 1920s constructed a light monoplane that he hoped would sell in large numbers as an airplane for everyman. He died in an airplane crash in 1937 and is memorialized in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
Aldridge's book is a fascinating story well told, with copious endnotes documenting the many primary and secondary sources he mined to relate a tale of inspiration and invention. He deserves praise for highlighting the previously neglected contribution Huff made to the development of the first airplanes in Georgia. Yet Aldridge could have done more to place Epps and Huff in a broader historiographical and interpretive context. The partners' connections to the Wrights, Blériot, and Glenn Hammond Curtiss underscore the technological diffusion that characterized the international aeronautical community identified by historian Tom D. Crouch. The work of Epps and Huff is also a case study of cut-and-try empiricism; they and others had little or no understanding of the physics of flight or the principles of aerodynamics. As they transitioned from one design to another, Epps and Huff never resolved a standardized design that met the performance needs necessary to compete with more sophisticated airplanes readily available to aviators in the 1910s. Despite such shortcomings, anyone interested in the history of flight will find this book a good starting point for a more comprehensive study of early aeronautics in Georgia and the South.