Georgia is celebrating a century of aviation this year. The industry has brought prosperity, jobs and economic growth at a rate its pioneers never envisioned. But, at its heart, it’s still about the thrill of flying.
One hundred years ago this October, a young inventor and bicycle mechanic in Athens walked into his own field of dreams.
Photographs taken that day show a grassy meadow at the town’s edge and an eager clutch of onlookers. The young man was Ben Epps, and his dream was to go airborne in a strange contraption with all the grace of a boxcar and the mechanical complexity of a three-speed Schwinn.
The first Epps flying machine didn’t soar through time zones or sail along swift air currents on that day in 1907. It took the inventor many more tries over the next few years to stay aloft for more than 100 yards, just 50 feet up.
What Epps – a Georgia Tech dropout with a passion for the newfangled air machines – did accomplish was to open the first chapter of Georgia’s aviation history.
Although Epps died in a plane crash in 1937, he left behind six sons who were all aviators. Pat Epps, now 73, still runs Epps Aviation, the family business. “We have seen amazing changes since the 1930s, when Daddy died, that is true,” he says. “But the thing that stayed the same for us was, we all like the challenge of being in the air.”
In the 100 years since Ben Epps’ early attempt at flight, the desire to fly ever-better planes has spawned enormous inventiveness, breakthrough engineering and commerce. Ninety years ago, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, was just a single airstrip called Candler Field – now it’s the world’s busiest commercial airport and has a $5 billion impact on the state’s economy.
Wood and canvas monoplanes have given way to complex steel inventions and hybrid fuels. Aviation and its offspring, the aerospace industry, bring billions of dollars in contracts and payroll checks annually to Georgia, which now ranks eighth in the nation for aerospace development. Powerful bombers and sleek passenger jets are built and tested here. Almost 37,000 civilians currently are employed in Georgia’s aviation industry, according to the state Department of Labor.
Creativity And Risk-Taking
This year, as Georgia celebrates the centennial of flight, aviation historians are examining the route from Epps’ field in Athens to today’s mega-industry. One thing is clear: Aviation didn’t follow a single, linear path. Rather, a confluence of many events in many places happened over the century, both in wartime and peacetime.
“The emphasis changed, as the times called for change. But the wonderful thing about the aviation industry is how it has adapted to the changing needs of the times,” says Ron Carbon, director of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
That museum, housed in the larger Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base, shows the cycles of progress. The early 1900s were a time of great creativity and risk-taking. Models of early planes show wood and canvas crafts with tiny motors.
The faces and stories of Georgia’s pioneering pilots are displayed here, alongside the artifacts they carried. Sometimes only a compass and a wristwatch guided them along their flights. Each year, more Georgia aviators are inducted to the museum and their stories are made known.
Henry Lowe, a Hall of Fame board member who operates Lowe Aviation in Macon, where his father founded the company in 1946, says the roots of modern flight branched in three directions. “It is difficult to show the aviation history of Georgia without understanding how those early, little airplanes, which all went the same speed, split in three directions: commercial, general and military. Then each type got faster and much more specialized,” he says.
“The military planes had to fly faster and farther, while the passenger planes had to also add safety and comfort features. General aviation is the most diverse branch of all because it embraces helicopters, charter-on-demand planes, Lear jets and Gulfstream corporate jets, ambulance planes, crop dusters and aerial photography planes,” Lowe says. That diversity is part of the reason aviation has made an unbroken contribution to Georgia’s economy.
The growth spurt of the early 1900s transformed grassy airstrips into busy airfields with hangars and multiple runways where airplanes were used as crop dusters during the week, then for recreational barnstorming on weekends. People hungered for the flying experience, recalls George Epps, whose father and then-13-year-old brother, Ben Jr., took passengers for flights at $1 per ride. By 1910, just three years after Epps’ first flight, Camp McKenzie was an established flying field in Augusta.
Then came World War I. From 1914 to 1920, military needs dominated aviation. To give America supremacy in the skies, Georgia, like other states, was concerned with training troops at army fields. The War Department leased 407 acres in 1918 for Souther Field, an aviation supply depot, near Americus. A rudimentary landing field was built at (then) Camp Benning for balloon research.
During the 1920s and 1930s, until America prepared to enter World War II, Georgia saw another surge in aviation interest and creativity for both commerce and leisure. The Atlanta Aero Club was established for the fun of flying; the city of Atlanta leased the first parcel south of town that would eventually become Hartsfield-Jackson. Ben Epps Field in Athens opened; and Charles Lindbergh paid $500 for a Jenny at Souther Field, in which he began his barnstorming career. Callaway Airport in LaGrange opened, as did airfields in Savannah, Waycross, Douglas and Macon.
As planes and fuels improved, long distance flights became inevitable to ship mail and commodities by air, and aviation companies saw the possible market for commercial passenger flights. Two prominent Georgia airlines got their start in 1929: Eastern Airlines began carrying mail May 1, while Delta Air Service – formerly a crop dusting operation known as Huff Daland Dusters – carried passengers across the South in six-passenger planes beginning in June. The trip from Jackson, Miss., to Dallas took an entire day.
Marie Force, an archivist for Delta Air Lines, says that first flight stopped at Shreveport and Monroe, in Louisiana, and that along the way employees often played a game of golf on the grassy runways at the airstrips.
“What made Delta’s business unique at that time was that it was one of the few air carriers that didn’t have a contract to carry mail,” Force says. “That was how the planes usually made money before the Great Depression. But because Delta Air Service already had a sizable fleet of crop dusting planes, it had experienced pilots who knew air routes. In 1934, Delta was awarded a mail contract. Then it expanded its route to carry both people and mail from Fort Worth to Charleston.”
The nascent company’s slogan became, “Delta: the Trans-Southern airline.” Seven years later, Delta moved its headquarters to Atlanta and added a new north-south route from Cincinnati to Savannah, with Atlanta in the middle. “That is how Atlanta became the center or hub of Delta’s flights,” Force says.
The Political Factor
Politics favored Georgia’s aviation growth. “A lot of military bases and navy bases were built in Georgia thanks to a congressman who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and House Naval Affairs,” Lowe says.
“That was Carl Vinson from Milledgeville. From the 1920s up to World War II, because of Vinson’s influence and political power, we ended up with a tremendous military presence. Macon’s airport was a World War II training base for British military cadets because they were at war and could not train back in Britain. We helped them up to the point we got in the war ourselves.”
The war brought another surge of air bases and training camps opening in Georgia, along with manufacturing. “Small airfields everywhere were leased to build airfields for the U.S. Army,” Carbon says. “Negotiations for military contracts brought millions of dollars to Georgia for construction and operating costs. Our state got lots of money from the Pentagon.”
In 1940, for example, the Army announced a $1.5 million project at Augusta’s Daniel Field. In 1941, the U.S. Navy leased DeKalb County Airport entirely, taking over all hangars and runways.
Defense contracts for building aircraft were unprecedented, as well. In 1942 Bell Aircraft announced it would employ 40,000 workers at a new $15-million plant in Marietta. Lockheed-Georgia began building its 76-acre B-1 plant in March 1942 and finished it in April 1943. The military growth spurt continued until World War II ended in 1945. (Plans are in the works for an aviation museum in Marietta near the current Lockheed Martin facility; it will display planes built at the plant, including the B-29 bomber, and is slated to open in 2009.)
By the end of World War II, Robins Air Force Base had reached an all-time high of 10,686 military personnel and 12,984 civilians. By late 1946, however, dozens of small bases were closed or realigned, cadets and airmen drifted away and small training operations ceased.
But Georgia’s aviation industry didn’t come to a halt. It shifted back to a peacetime enterprise with considerable verve. Eastern and Delta inaugurated new breeds of passenger planes such as the DC-4, along with passenger service to new points around the globe. By the late 1940s, the original Atlanta Airport terminal was deemed too small, and plans were laid for a smarter, bigger terminal to establish Atlanta as a major aviation hub.
In 1950, then-Mayor William B. Hartsfield pushed for a new airport – a move widely credited with securing Atlanta’s position as the pre-eminent city in the Southeast.
In 1951, the Korean War added another growth spurt. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation of Burbank, Calif., reopened its Georgia facilities at the Air Force’s request to modify B-29 bombers for the Korean War. Soon it was also building B-47s under license from Boeing. The airfield at Dobbins was expanded to accommodate those bombers. In 1954, Robins added personnel again as well as surface-to-surface missiles such as the Mace.
From the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, aviation seesawed back and forth from wartime boom to peacetime boom. There was no bust, it seemed. If Georgia plants weren’t making planes for military purposes, they were contributing to the burgeoning aerospace industry.
Politics again helped Georgia’s air industry from 1962 to 1970, Lowe explains. “Gov. Carl Sanders saw to that. He went all over the state and built airports at a time when you could do it cheaply, so that no community would ever be more than 60 minutes from an airport,” he says. Sanders created the largest aviation budget the state had ever allocated.
Meanwhile, people were buying plane tickets to points around the globe as passenger jets such as Eastern’s Electra or Douglas DC-8 made jet travel more comfortable. In 1958, Gulfstream Aviation (now Gulfstream Aerospace) began operations. With headquarters in Savannah, the company has manufactured some of the world’s finest jets for private and corporate use.
The South also saw Southern Airways begin service from Atlanta to Memphis; Delta Air Lines could carry travelers all the way to California in a matter of hours. Northeast Airlines merged routes into Delta’s system. By 1977, Delta’s jets were leaving Hartsfield more than 240 times, daily.
Fanfare And Firsts
This also was a time of fanfare and transportation “firsts.” Force recalls an exciting benchmark for Delta, Dec. 18, 1959 – the start of jet service from Atlanta to New York. “They served free champagne and steaks cooked to order on board; the air sickness bags had aviation quizzes and gin rummy score cards on them to amuse passengers.”
On Delta’s first trans-Atlantic flight from Atlanta to London in 1978, special china featured the intertwined flowers of Great Britain – leek, shamrock and rose; people dressed as London beefeaters or bobbies and Southern belles. “The carrier was a Lockheed L-1011; and during the eight-hour flight, Stilton cheese and Scotch whiskey were served,” Force says.
From 1980 to the present, Georgia has dominated the commercial passenger flight market. In 2004 a record 84 million people passed through Hartsfield-Jackson. Today, Delta Air Lines’ economic impact on Georgia is some $14 billion annually, according to Gina Laughlin with Delta’s Office of Corporate Communications. “Ten years ago our impact was closer to $10 billion.”
Although Delta has stumbled a bit in recent years and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005, the airline successfully repelled a takeover attempt earlier this year. The company expects to emerge from bankruptcy this spring.
The aviation hall of fame’s Carbon has an optimistic view of the health of the state’s aviation future. “One thing Georgia can be proud of is that our universities and technical schools specialize in aviation,” he says.
“We are training for the future of the industry. Operation Quick Start, designed to prepare students for jobs in aviation and give employers a ready workforce, has led the nation in training new employees for nearly 10 years. The University System of Georgia offers 12 post-secondary degrees in specific aviation-related disciplines. Georgia has nearly 250 separate aerospace companies providing aircraft manufacturing, maintenance, repair and engineering services,” he says.
Meanwhile, the desire to fly is as strong today as it was in Ben Epps’ day and shows no sign of letting up. Epps’ sons, Pat and George, say flying is something that gets into your blood. George, now 83, still flies a Raytheon Beech 836 Bonanza. “I fly for the same reason my Daddy did. It is absolutely delightful. It’s looking at the earth from an entirely different point of view.”
Editor’s note: Information on specifics of Georgia’s aviation history was provided by archivist Phyllis Quick at the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.