By Stephen T. Jackson
Madison County Historian
The first time I saw the photograph I was intrigued not only by the subject matter, but also curious as to where it was taken. I was told the date is sometime in 1909 and the location is Harter Field in Anderson.
That field, which has the same appearance today as when the photograph was taken over 100 years ago, is bounded by Madison Avenue on the east to beyond Sycamore Street on the west, nestled between White River and the row of properties on the north side of First Street.
The photograph shows an airplane constructed in Anderson. It looks very similar to the one built and flown six years earlier by Orville and Wilbur Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903. The Wright brothers made four flights that historic day.
The first flight, by Orville, of 120 feet, lasted only 12 seconds at a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour. The next two flights covered about 175 feet and 200 feet, by Wilbur and Orville respectively. Their altitude was about 10 feet above the ground.
Wilbur flew the fourth and last flight. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. After the men hauled the Flyer back from its fourth flight, a powerful gust of wind flipped it over several times, despite the crew’s attempt to hold it down. Severely damaged, the airplane never flew again.
The Wright brothers made no flights at all in 1906 and 1907. They spent the time attempting to persuade the U.S. and European governments that they had invented a successful flying machine and were prepared to negotiate a contract to sell such machines.
It was during 1907 that a new federal agency came into being: the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps. A branch of the United States Army, it was the first heavier-than-air military aviation organization in history and the forerunner of the United States Air Force.
Wilbur Wright had a meeting with them and the agency was favorably impressed. With additional input from the Wrights, the Signal Corps issued Specification #486 in December 1907, inviting bids for construction of an airplane under military contract.
In January 1908, the Wright brothers submitted their bid and immediately went to work to develop an aircraft that met the government’s requirements. After several disastrous attempts, success was achieved.
In July 1909, Orville, with Wilbur assisting, completed the proving flights for the U.S. Army, meeting the requirements of a two-seater able to fly with a passenger for an hour at an average of speed of 40 miles an hour and land undamaged. They were paid $30,000 for their aircraft.
While the Wright brothers were busy with their aircraft, two Anderson men were busy designing and building an aircraft of their own, although not to win the contract.
In 1909, Levi Calvin Lambert was a 33-year-old plant manager of the Pioneer Pole and Shaft Co. located at the northwest corner of Third and Sycamore streets in Anderson. Their specialty was the manufacture and bending of poles, shafts and strips to meet most any need.
In 1900, that same location was the site of Buckeye Window Shade Co. Both flexible poles and pliable window shade material would be necessary to build an aircraft using the known designs of that time.
Immediately south of there on the west side of Sycamore was a sprawling complex of buildings covering two city blocks that stretched south to Fifth Street. Two major firms occupied the site. Buckeye Manufacturing Co., among other products, manufactured automobiles. The other firm, Lambert Gas and Gasoline Engine Co., supplied the engines that powered the Buckeye products.
All three sites, Pioneer, Buckeye and Lambert, were owned and managed by the five Lambert brothers.
Charles H. Hensley was a 40-year-old man of apparently many abilities. His son, Robert, recalls that his father was the inventive type always busy developing something of mechanical.
In Hensley’s spare time he pursued a hobby that was critical to the project. He enjoyed building and flying box kites. From different walks of life they collaborated to construct the first flying machine probably ever seen in this area.
The motor for the airplane was undoubtedly built by the Lambert Gasoline Engine Co., although by 1909 it had moved along with Buckeye Manufacturing Co. to a new site at 19th Street and Columbus Avenue.
While the assembly location is unknown today, it is a logical assumption that the aircraft was assembled on site at the Pioneer Pole and Shaft Co. All the equipment and materials necessary would have been available including leftover window shade material that could have been used to cover the wing’s framework. With Hensley’s knowledge and expertise, the use of Levi Lambert’s facility, and the backing of the industrious Lambert family, a machine capable of flying was designed and built.
When completed, all that was left was to test the machine and find a suitable place to conduct the flight. Once again, Hensley offered to be the pilot. The nearest site to attempt the flight would have been Harter Field a short distance to the northeast.
Two major differences existed between the 1903 Wright Brothers’ design and the Hensley-Lambert design. First, the 1903 plane required the pilot to lie flat on his stomach. The Hensley-Lambert plane allowed the pilot to sit upright.
Secondly, the Wright Brothers’ plane had skids on the bottom. They got their aircraft airborne by driving at full power along a single rail. The skids rested on a rod that was attached to a pulley. The plane was released from the rail when the pilot pulled the wire. The Hensley-Lambert craft had two small wheels attached to the front of the frame.
Roger Hensley, Charles Hensley’s grandson, said the plane flew around in a circle. For how long or at what height is unknown. He was told the plane was dismantled sometime after its only flight.
The Buckeye plant on Sycamore eventually became the Ward Stilson Co. site. The Pioneer building was later the Anderson Launderers and Cleaners location.
For more information visit the Madison County History Center, 15 W. 11th St., Anderson, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The phone is 683-0052.