Just think, instead of North Carolina, Oklahoma might have been “First in Flight.”
North Carolina, of course, had the Wright brothers, who flew their flying machince success fully on December 17, 1903.
Oklahoma had Ben Bellis, a Muskogee plumber.
From The Oklahoman June 27, 1909:
“In the north part of town near the M.O. & G. depot in a pile of rubbish there is a framework of gas pipes, steel strips and wire. This is the first airship that was ever made in the southwest, and was conceived long before the Wrights got into the game. It was the “Ben Bellis,” and was made by a plumber who is still in the plumbing business in Muskogee, his ambition as an areonaut having perished in the ridicule that was heaped upon his machine.”
The article goes on to tell that this event had occurred several years earlier, when Muskogee was a small town of around 2,000 and had no waterworks and not much work for a plumber. Ben Bellis, having time on his hands, watched windmills and “then was born the idea of a flying machine.”
Being a plumber, he used the materials he had on hand. Quoting the newspaper, “Finally the contraption was completed. It was a curious affair, made of gas pipes, steel strips, wire and an expanse of canvas. It had a small but powerful engine attached. There was no aluminum in those days and Bellis did not have bamboo. So his airship was a weighty affair, several hundred pounds, in fact.”
The great day arrived and Bellis, who had spread the word near and far of the first flight, had attracted the “biggest crowd that had ever been in Muskogee up to that time.” People had come from miles around.
The crowd awaited breathless as the plumber started the engine and prepared for flight. “But the “Ben Bellis” was a sulky bird.” Bellis tried for hours to get off the ground, but his airship refused to cooperate.
The story goes on to tell that Ben Bellis stayed in the plumbing business and became a rich man, but he never tried to build another flying machine.