Ansted, West Virginia and Aviation HistoryJuly 6, 2011
Peck’s name appears in aviation annals, mentioned in the gap between Kitty Hawk and the astounding aeronautical advances forged by two World Wars. However, in his home state of West Virginia, the achievements of the daring “Birdman” remain largely unrecognized.
- Born in Ansted, West Virginia, Peck learned to fly in just 7 days and was the state’s first pilot and just the 57th licensed by the International Aeronautics Federation.
- Within two weeks of learning to fly, Peck captured a world flight record.
- Peck was more than likely the first to fly in West Virginia and many historians believe he piloted the first plane to land in Raleigh County (sometime before 1912).
- Peck was the first to fly over the U.S. Capitol, setting a speed record of 24 miles in 25 minutes.
- Peck set an endurance record, flying over Boston for four hours, 23 minutes and 15 seconds. He also held a record for landing accuracy.
- When the nation’s first military aviation school opened at College Park, Md., in 1911, Peck was one of the instructors. Rare postcards coveted by collectors commemorate his role in the first U.S. airmail flights.
The Following Article Orginally Appeared in the Charleston Gazette
Birdman of West Virginia
West Virginia’s trailblazing first pilot remains largely
unrecognized. Until now.
Sunday June 15, 2003
By Sandy Wells
A storm loomed. Dark, churning clouds encroached rapidly from the northeast. Tree limbs swayed under the force of the rushing gale.
Paul Peck climbed into his flying machine, jaw clenched, eyes staring straight ahead, determined to complete the first flight over West Virginia’s downtown Capitol. The round-trip journey, starting from the South Charleston ball field, would cover nearly six miles.”
Just as the plane scooted forward, the storm hit. Lightning shot from the clouds. Thunder deadened the sound of the whirring, sputtering engine. Ferocious wind whipped the wings.
A Gazette reporter watched with growing concern: “It looked as though all the elements had combined to defeat the object of this white-winged invention of man and to wreak their vengeance upon the aviator who would dare to pit his skill and daring against their fury.”
It was June 26, 1912, the second day of a three-day aviation meet. Nearly 5,000 people turned out for their first look at the wonders of flight. The warm, sunny morning offered no hint of the storm that raged through the valley that afternoon.
Bad weather never bothered Paul Peck. The reporter saw resolve in his demeanor. “There was in the countenance of the former Charleston boy, as he sat amid the network of steel wire and faced the darkened horizon, that said more plainly than words that he would achieve his expressed purpose of encircling the dome of his state’s capital.”
Fearlessly, Peck plowed his way through heavy wind toward Charleston, flying as high as 2,000 feet. “The game little flyer had to fight for every inch he gained against the wind,” the Gazette reported. Somehow, Peck stayed the course. Just past the dome, he made a sudden, sensational swing to the east and north. A perfect circle. Returning ahead of the gale, traveling at 75 miles an hour, he covered the three miles back to the ball field in 90 seconds. Amazing! He landed deftly in an open space near the ball field. The crowd cheered. His journey took 11 minutes and 30 seconds. “Nature had done her worst,” the paper reported. “Man had done his best. And man had won.”
At least for now.
Col. Paul Peck – his rank was bestowed by the governor – had a reputation for brilliance in storms. Flying at Long Island, he set a world duration record amid lightning and hail.
Two months after his celebrated performance here, he represented the United States in the International Gordon Bennett Trophy Race at Chicago. A storm erupted. He died, fittingly, in midair.
He was 23.
The Wright brothers. Lindbergh. Earhart. Those names we know. Yet 100 years after the Wrights’ inaugural flight, and 91 years after the midair catastrophe that killed Paul Peck, who remembers him?
Born in Ansted, the son of Lon and Alice Peck of Lewisburg, he grew up mostly in Hinton where his father worked as a railroad agent. He also lived for a time in Philadelphia and in Charleston where two brothers settled.
Intrigued by machinery as a boy, he gravitated to the new automobiles and loved tinkering with their motors. As a young man, he worked as a chauffeur in Washington for financier Isaac T. Mann, a millionaire from Bramwell.
In 1911, two days after his 22nd birthday, he began flight lessons. The same year, he married a woman from Washington, D.C., where they made their home. Within a year, she died. Five months later, he lay beside her at Union Cemetery in Rockville, Md. He left behind a year-old son who later died at the age of 7.
Peck’s name pops up in aviation annals, mentioned in the gap between Kitty Hawk and the astounding aeronautical advances forged by two world wars. But in his home state, the achievements of West Virginia’s daring, trailblazing birdman remain largely unrecognized.
He was the state’s first pilot, the 57th licensed by the International Aeronautics Federation. He learned to fly in seven days. Within two weeks, he captured a world flight record.
He probably was the first to fly in West Virginia. Historians believe he piloted the first plane to land in Raleigh County and that the flight occurred before 1912.
He was the first to fly over the U.S. Capitol, setting a speed record of 24 miles in 25 minutes.
He set an endurance record, flying over Boston for four hours, 23 minutes and 15 seconds. He also held a record for landing accuracy.
When the nation’s first military aviation school opened at College Park, Md., in 1911, he was one of the instructors. Rare postcards coveted by collectors commemorate his role in the first U.S. airmail flights.
A huge photo displayed in the Aviation Museum in College Park shows him with a Rex Smith plane. The museum salutes him as a test pilot for the Rex Smith Aeroplane Co., an airplane designer and well-known exhibition flier.
In West Virginia, a single plaque in the lobby of the Greenbrier County Airport memorializes his contribution to flight. People do stop and read it, said airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan. “There’s not a lot to do in terminals.”
Peck’s last descendants presented the plaque to the airport in 1979. Col. John Gwinn, airport manager at the time of the presentation, commended the family for choosing the airport location:
“Peck’s importance to aviation history is not realized by many West Virginians,” Gwinn said in a 1979 newspaper article. “This man was flying seven years after the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. He was flying when Lindbergh was only 9 years old.”
He remained one of the rare people in America working to perfect flight after the Wright brothers’ breakthrough, O’Sullivan said.
“The French picked it up and most of the development took place in France. The plane was just an oddity here. It wasn’t until after World War I that we started to get into the game. It’s very important that he didn’t drop the ball.”
The show of shows
Valley residents cheered heartily for their homegrown hero during the 1912 air show at the South Charleston ball field.
They’d read about the event for days in The Charleston Gazette. Using the flowery prose of that era, the paper promised spectators much excitement:
“The air will be full of these famous aeroplanes, whirling, gliding, dipping, sailing, tearing through the air at a mile a minute, their engines popping a fusillade of explosion and the deafening noise of their powerful motors heard for a distance of miles.”
To reach the ball field (the eventual site of Union Carbide), spectators could take a streetcar or a 10-cent ride aboard the steamer Valley Bell. The boat made two trips from the foot of Summers Street, first at 1:15 and again at 2:15, just in time for the 2:20 show.
Most arrived early, eager for a close look at the newfangled flying machines. The winged contraptions attracted the kind of curiosity we’d reserve today for a flying saucer. “It didn’t seem possible that those 1,100 pound monsters could rise into the air like a bird and fly just as well as a bird,” the Gazette reported.
A farmer in town for the spectacle just shook his head. “T’aint in water,” he said. “I don’t understand how that there thing can fly. But the paper says so, and I’m going to see if it can be done.”
He watched the first flight, dumbstruck. “It do beat all how they do things nowadays,” he said finally.
The Gazette deemed the opening program “the greatest entertainment ever witnessed by the people of Charleston and Kanawha County.”
Later, the reporter found Peck at the cashier’s desk in the office of the Kanawha Hotel. A young man in spectacles, he was cramming greenbacks into an envelope to deposit for the American Aviation Co. The reporter asked how he felt way up in the air.
“Well, a young lady once asked me that question, and I asked how she felt when she received her first proposal of marriage,” Peck replied. “She said she couldn’t tell me. And that’s the way it is with me.”
Peck flew the plane he designed and built, a push-type Columbian biplane with a rotary motor, the one he used to set a world duration record. The plane had been on exhibit at the Barrett & Shipley department store at Quarrier and Hale streets. He was proud of it. “He talks little about himself and a lot about his machine,” the Gazette reported.
Two other pilots in the show, Oscar Brindley and Eugene Heth, flew the famous biplanes contrived by Wilbur Wright. The Wrights insisted on the superiority of their cylinder engine and double propeller model that could fly 40 miles an hour at 600 to 700 revolutions a minute.
Pilots controlled the Wright plane with levers. Peck used a steering wheel to direct his Columbian biplane. Peck’s 50-horsepower Gyro rotary engine and single propeller plane flew 70 miles an hour on 1,200 to 1,500 revolutions a minute.
During the three-day spectacle, his plane flew faster and earned praise from spectators for the most graceful descents and landings.
“The landings are the features that the spectators appear to enjoy most,” the newspaper noted. “To see the great air birds sweep down and do a spiral glide onto the earth, the penetrating whirr of the revolving shafts sounding like the angry hum of a giant wasp – and then rush along the ground with the speed of an auto and the aspect of a winged prehistoric monster – that is a sight that banishes boredom and gives a thrill to the most sluggish pulse.”
But Peck’s airborne antics also kept pulses racing. He mesmerized the crowd with his perilous “ocean roll,” a maneuver that demanded perfect control and balance. The series of short dips and upflights required the engine to shut off before each dip and spark up again for the ascent.
A legacy in death
Always, the Grim Reaper waited in the wings. But with every takeoff and landing, with every spiral and ocean roll, the fearless pilots defied him.
The Gazette reporter attributed their bravery to fatalism. During their visit here, he watched Peck and the other two pilots perusing pictures of biplanes in action. One photo captured an aviator on his final, fatal trip. “Their remarks gave evidence of that fatalism, as it is called, that exists in all bird men – a feeling that what must be will be. Feeling so, they have no nervousness when taking their lofty flights.”
At the Chicago exhibition two months later, Peck started his steep spiral, ignoring the sudden storm. Nobody knows why the engine came loose. The plane had to be shipped by train from Washington to Charleston to Chicago. Maybe it happened along the way.
On the pusher model plane he preferred, air pushing from the propeller powered an engine behind the cockpit. The loosened motor cut through the pilot’s seat with its whirling propeller. His plane disintegrated in the air.
Even in death, Paul Peck made history. His funeral was Washington’s first automobile funeral. The procession featured a motor hearse, a motor wagon laden with elaborate floral pieces and about 30 other automobiles.
In a story previewing the South Charleston show, a Gazette writer praised the bravery of those who risked their lives for progress. It could be Peck’s epitaph:
“The science takes its toll at an average of about one a week, of some crushed aviator consigned to his grave. But it is fortunate for the future of aviation that there are young men – and women too – of such daring as to defy the dangers of it.”
Ninety-one years ago, the reporter predicted a time when men and women would soar through the skies with as little concern as traveling to France on an ocean liner:
“Day after day will come practical information, through discovery of features tending to eventual safety, until at last there will be no more danger in travel through the air than over the land or the water.”
To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, use e-mail or call 348- 5173.
Paul Peck, who was West Virginia’s first pilot, had many other flight-related achievements:
He learned to fly in seven days. Within two weeks, he captured a world flight record.
He was the first to fly over the U.S. Capitol.
He set an endurance record, flying over Boston for nearly four and a half hours.
When the nation’s first military aviation school opened in 1911, he was an instructor.
Coveted rare postcards commemorate his role as one of the first U.S. airmail pilots.
© Copyright 2003 Sunday Gazette-Mail
Reprinted by permission