This year the state of Georgia is celebrating its centennial of powered flight.
Celebrating along with the rest of the state is the Epps family, for it was Ben Epps who started it all and his descendents have played major roles in Georgia aviation from that day to this.
In 1907, only four years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, 19-year-old Ben Epps designed, built and flew the first airplane ever seen in Georgia. He then built seven more aircraft of his own design, gave flying lessons, performed in barnstorming shows and, shortly after World War I, established the airfield at his home town of Athens, Georgia, that still bears his name. He died in a crash 30 years after his first flight.
Epps had attended Georgia Tech for a year when he turned his hand to airplane design. At that time he was an electrician, like the Wrights a bicycle repairman and, also like the Wrights, an imaginative inventor. He had 10 children, nine of whom became pilots. Five of his six sons served in the military. Three of them – Pat, Charles and George – started Epps Aviation in 1964. It has become one of the South’s largest full-service FBOs, occupying some 20 acres at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, where two of Ben Epps’s daughters, Virginia and Evelyn, were pilot instructors during World War II, when the airport was Gordon Naval Air Station.
Pat Epps bought out his brothers early in the 1980s and his three children, all of whom are pilots, are working alongside him today. Marian is the company’s chief financial officer, Patrick is the customer service manager and Elaine is the marketing director.
Pat Epps, now 73, claims that he never thought of joining his father’s business when he was young. After graduation from Georgia Tech, he worked for Boeing as a flight engineer on the prototype 707 and joined the Air Force in 1957, where he flew C-97s and instructed in C-123s. After his Air Force service, he and one of his brothers saw an ad recruiting Mooney aircraft dealers. They answered it, becoming the Mooney distributors for Georgia in 1964. In 1965 Pat quit his engineering job to work at airplane sales full time. Today, Epps Aviation employs more than 150 people.
Pat Epps is best known outside Georgia for his long but ultimately successful quest to recover a group of P-38s and B-17s that landed on the Greenland ice cap during World War II. With fellow Georgian Don Brooks and many others, the Epps group finally excavated the P-38 now known as “Glacier Girl” from beneath 250 feet of ice, at the end of five grueling expeditions undertaken over 11 years.
That Quixotic quest started with one not much less so, when Epps and friend Richard Taylor decided it would be nice to roll Epps’s Bonanza over the North Magnetic Pole, which they did, and that’s a story in itself. Epps still flies that Bonanza at air shows, in a seven-minute routine of loops, rolls and hammerheads.
On the way home, Epps insisted on visiting Narssarssuaq, a famous World War II base in Greenland. On the way they stopped at Sondre Stromfjord, where a group of Danish pilots told them about the legendary Lost Squadron: Six P-38s and two B-17s that landed on the ice cap in 1942, after running low on fuel.
Back in Georgia, Epps and Taylor often talked about their North Pole adventure but it was when a customer commented that he’d always wanted a P-38 that the bigger adventure got going. “I know where there are six of them,” Epps chuckled.
Their recovery then became an obsession, Epps told me in 2002, but he said there was an important lesson in the persistence: “It doesn’t matter how many times you stumble. If you pick yourself up and keep going, maybe you will succeed. In our case, we did get the airplane,” he said.
That’s Pat Epps for you.
To honor the 100th anniversary of Georgia’s first flight, Harris Lowery, another Athens resident, decided to build a replica of Ben Epps’s pioneering airplane. He had an incomplete, but fairly detailed, set of plans to work with so was able to figure out how the 1907 aircraft was constructed.
Lowery likes to point out that the Ben Epps design differed in important ways from the Wright Flyer.
“The Wrights didn’t have wheels,” he said. “He had wheels. The Wrights had two wings. He had a single wing. I would say his probably weighed half as much as the Wright Flyer, too. In the future of things, he was on the right track.” The pilot sat upright, too, rather than lying on the wing as the Wrights did.
Pat Epps commented that most histories say the first airplane with wheels on it was built in 1908, “but I’m looking at pictures of my Daddy’s airplane from 1907.” A Smithsonian Institution video states that the first tractor-propeller airplane was built in1911, but old photographs show Ben Epps with a tractor plane that he built and flew in 1909 or 1910, his son said.
The Lowery replica was moved to the Epps Aviation FBO at the end of November. The plan is to display it there, as a permanent reminder that Georgia had its own aviation pioneer.
Will Epps Aviation be around in another 100 years? Pat Epps has no illusions that it may turn into a four-generation business. Maybe, he says, but “I just gotta keep it running” right now.
He isn’t talking about retirement.
For more information: EppsAviation.com