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Steelhammer: A flight through state history

For years, North Carolina and Ohio have been in a dogfight over which state should be credited with being the birthplace of powered flight.

Now, the states find themselves in the unusual position of forming an alliance to shoot down a challenge by Connecticut, which recently signed a law claiming that native son Gustave Whitehead made the first airplane flight in Stratford, Conn., in 1901 - two years before the Wright Brothers' flight.

While Ohio license plates bear the slogan "Birthplace of Aviation," and North Carolina's tags claim that state to be "First in Flight," both claims are essentially correct, assuming that it was the Wright Brothers who made the world's first controlled powered flight.

The Wright Brothers designed and built their primitive airplane Flyer in Dayton, so in that sense, Dayton was modern aviation's "birthplace."

 But it was from a sand dune facing the Atlantic at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, N. C., where the Wrights' Flyer made its first controlled power flights in December of 1903, making North Carolina "first in flight."

While Whitehead's claim to having made the first powered flight has been advanced from time to time in the past, a television documentary aired this spring based on new research by an Australian historian brought the Connecticut man to the fore once more.

While the claim has "spawned much speculation and hearsay," according to Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian, in a recent Associated Press article, "people who have looked at this over the years almost unanimously reject the claim," Crouch said.

And while it has been documented that West Virginia spruce milled at Cass was used in building the frames for the Wright Brothers' Flyer II and FlyerIII, it turns out our state played a role in a much earlier aviation achievement.

On an April day in 1835, English-born clockmaker and budding aeronaut Richard Clayton lifted off from a hilltop in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati at about 5 p.m. in his balloon "Star of the West" and began drifting eastward on what would turn out to be an epic flight.

Not long after dark, the balloon had drifted into West Virginia (then Virginia ) airspace. It eventually flew over the saltworks along the Kanawha River near Malden, the only place in the region where numerous fires and lights were kept burning at night, and began to lose altitude.

To maintain flight, Clayton began to dump ballast until all of it was gone. To reduce weight further, he then lowered his dog by rope to a safe landing on a ridge below, according to a letter he later wrote to a Cincinnati newspaper. But shortly after 2 a.m., his flight came to an end when his balloon lodged in a tree atop Keeney's Knob along the Summers-Greenbrier line a few miles north of Pence Springs.

In a little more than nine hours, Clayton had covered nearly 320 miles, becoming the world's first balloonist to travel more than 500 kilometers in a single flight, according to "The Complete History of Aviation: From Ballooning to Supersonic Flight."

According to an 1899 history of the Graham family, which established the first settlement in the Lowell area of Summers County in 1770, Clayton lowered himself to the ground with ropes after crash landing on the West Virginia mountaintop. The balloonist managed to make his way to the home of Samuel and James Gill, who in turn took him to Joseph Graham's home, about two miles away.

A member of the Graham family then took Clayton to Charleston by wagon, and from there, the aeronaut made his way back to Cincinnati by steamboat. While Clayton's flight to Charleston took only nine hours, it took nine days for him to return home.

In 1879, a post office that opened not far from the site of the Cincinnati man's landing zone was named Clayton in his honor. It closed in 1959.

Maybe the West Virginia DMV should consider an aviation-themed license plate to commemorate Clayton's flight. I nominate "West Virginia: First in Hot Air."


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