Sunday, February 20, 2011

20 February 1888: Aviator Ben Epps Is Born

On this day in 1888, Georgia aviation pioneer Benjamin Thomas Epps was born in Oconee County, the first of 10 children. After dropping out of Georgia Tech in 1904, he came to Athens and started a garage business at 120 E. Washington Street, where he repaired bicycles and automobiles, worked as an electrical contractor, and began to design and build airplanes.

In 1907, just a few years after the Wright Brothers' flight in North Carolina, Ben Epps took his first flight, believed to be the first in Georgia.  He was 19 years old. The plane had a 15-horsepower engine and a 35-foot wingspan. Epps launched the plane off a hill, and flew between Prince Avenue and Boulevard, approximately 100 yards at an altitude of 50 feet.

Over the years he would continue to build planes as a hobby while running his garage business, which had the first filling station in Athens.  He was married to Omie Williams Epps, and the father of 10 children; due to his family commitments, he was not drafted to serve in World War I.  

In 1917, he opened the Epps Flying Field, the first civilian airport in Georgia. He started the Rolfe-Epps Flying Service with L. Monte Rolfe, offering charter air service, aerial photography, and flight lessons to the general public. Epps also performed in airshows.

All of his sons, and most of his daughters, learned how to fly. Sometimes he would let his oldest daughter, Evelyn, skip a day at the Lucy Cobb Institute to buzz downtown Athens in his latest plane. When his oldest son, Ben, Jr., was the youngest person to fly solo at age 13, father and son were invited to the White House to meet President Herbert Hoover

Though he had several crashes, or "crack ups" over the years, nothing could dissuade Epps from flying. As his wife told a WPA interviewer less than two years after his death, "He was doing this before we married--how could I change him?" His children were largely cut from the same adventurous cloth. 

Ben Epps, Sr., was killed in plane crash in 1937 at the Athens airfield in a plane he'd built seven years earlier while giving a test ride. Mrs. Epps said that "his death has had no effect on us as to our belief in aviation. We are as interested in it now as we were in his lifetime. I am sure if Ben had known that was his last flight, he would have been happy to know he died or was killed in what he loved best, no matter how far he had to fall."

In 1989, Ben Epps was one of the inaugural members of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. A replica of his 1912 monoplane is on permanent exhibit at the United States Air Force Aviation Museum in Warner Robins, Georgia. 

The Athens Airport is on the same site as his Flying Field, and was later named the Athens-Ben Epps Airport. His grandson is raising money for a statue of Ben Epps, Sr. on Washington Street, across from his old garage, where the club 8e's is currently located.

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