Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Father of Aviation ~ Crazy Old Man of the Sand Dunes

by Ramona K. Cecil

For the better part of the last century, Ohio and North Carolina have battled over the bragging rights to having pioneered aviation—the former declaring “The Birthplace of Aviation” on their auto license plates while North Carolina claims “First In Flight” on theirs. Connecticut, too, has now muscled into the fray with their own claim of “First Powered Flight,” declaring that German-born Connecticut aviator Gustave Whitehead took to the air two years before Ohio natives Wilbur and Orville Wright soared over North Carolina’s Kitty Hawk in 1903.

While the aforementioned states battle it out in the “first-in-flight” fight, it’s only fair that my state of Indiana elbow it’s way into the argument and plant the Hoosier flag alongside the flags of Ohio, North Carolina, and Connecticut in the fertile soil—or should I say sand—of the ongoing conflict.

Indiana State Flag
North Carolina State Flag

Connecticut State Flag
Ohio State Flag
 So what, you might ask, earns Indiana any claim to first-in-flight consideration? My answer: Octave Chanute, aka, Crazy Old Man of the Sand Dunes.

Octave Chanute
Born in Paris, France in 1832, Chanute emigrated to America at the age of six when his father was named Vice-President of Jefferson College in Louisiana. Educated in private schools in New York, Octave grew up to become a civil engineer. Over his career, he designed and oversaw the construction of the two largest U.S. stockyards; Chicago Stockyards and Kansas City Stockyards. He also designed and built many notable bridges in the U.S. including many rail bridges. Chanute’s work with railway bridges inspired him to invent a procedure for pressure-treating railroad ties, increasing the life of the wood. He also introduced the railroad date nail system to the U.S.; the date on the nail effectively registering when a railroad tie was installed.

Hannibal Bridge over Missouri River, Kansas City, Missouri

Though he retired from the Erie Railway in 1883, Chanute was not yet ready to retire from engineering. He first became interested in aviation while watching a balloon lift off from Peoria, Illinois in 1856. He began collecting data from flight scientists around the world. Combining what he learned with his own knowledge of engineering, he published his findings in 1893 in The Railroad Engineering Journal, which was re-published the following year in a book titled Progress in Flying Machines.

Too old to do his own flying, Chanute partnered with aviation experimenters Augustus M. Herring and William Avery. Together, they experimented with an array of flying machines on the sand dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan near Miller Beach, Indiana.

Augustus M. Herring
William Avery about to launch Chanute-Herring

 The flying experiments of Chanute and his cohorts soon drew media attention. One local newspaper described him as a “little man with gray hair and a ‘French style’ beard.” The locals simply dubbed him Crazy Old Man of the Sand Dunes.

A twelve-winged glider of Chanute's design
prepared for launch from the dunes of Miller
Beach, 1896
Chanute and his 1896 hang glider, a trailblazing
design adapted by the Wright Brothers

Over the years, Octave Chanute corresponded with many aviation scientists around the world including a ten-year correspondence with Wilbur Wright. Each summer from 1901 to 1903 Chanute was on hand at Kitty Hawk North Carolina to witness the Wright brothers experiments in flight.

Following Chanute’s death in 1910, Wilbur Wright wrote “If he (referring to Chanute) had not lived, the history of human flight would have been quite different from what it has been.”

Wilbur Wright

Today in Marquette Park, the site of Octave Chanute’s first flights, sits a boulder bearing a bronze plaque commemorating the man. It reads “Father of Aviation.”

So amid the ongoing argument of which state is first in flight, I proudly plant the Hoosier flag along side the flags of Ohio, South Carolina, and Connecticut. It’s the least I can do for the Crazy Old Man of the Sand Dunes.

Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

 Check out her website at


  1. Thanks for the post,Ramona!(As someone from Ohio it drew my interest right away) Looks like all the above mentioned states share a piece of aviation history and should all be proud!

    1. Thanks, Lynne! I agree! Love Ohio! Have family there. :-)

  2. Nice! Great post. I really do learn something new here everyday! Thanks!

  3. Being a born and bred Hoosier myself, I'm delighted to learn something about Indiana history I never knew--especially something as important as this. Thank you, Ramona, for educating us about another Hoosier first!

  4. Seems like it usually takes several attempts and lots of cooperation to pull off an invention like flying. Cheers to all of them. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com