The father of the state’s aviation, Ben Epps—inventor, mechanic, and aviator—was the first Georgian to build and fly an airplane. Over a thirty-year career Epps was an innovator who instilled a love of flying in many young Georgians, including his own children.
Born in Oconee County on February 20, 1888, Benjamin Thomas Epps was the eldest of ten children. His family moved to Clarke County, where Epps was educated in the Athens city schools. He studied briefly at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and returned to Athens. In 1907 Epps started an electrical contracting business and the first automobile repair garage in town, on Washington Street.
Inspired by the success of the Wright brothers in 1903, Epps the inventor was drawn to the development of motor-driven, heavier-than-air flying machines. In 1907 the nineteen-year-old Epps flew his first plane at an open field in Athens. Unlike the Wrights’ craft, in which the pilot operated the plane from a prone position on one of the double wings, Epps sat upright in a buggy seat. His monoplane used bicycle wheels, and a hill served as a runway, rather than the Wrights’ takeoff rail. Epps’s first flight was about 100 yards long, with an altitude of 50 feet. A replica of one of his later inventions, the Epps 1912 Monoplane, is on display at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins.
Epps, a devoted family man and father of ten, was exempt from service in World War I (1917-18) because of his responsibilities as head of a large household. After 1919 his work became less experimental as he used army surplus planes and befriended wartime aviators; one was L. Monte Rolfe. The Rolfe-Epps Flying Service in Athens offered aerial photography, passenger trips, and flight lessons to Georgia’s first generation of pilots. Epps Flying Field, located three miles from Athens on land rented from Clarke County, became Georgia’s first civilian airport. Today it is the site of Athens–Ben Epps Airport.
In 1925 Epps unveiled his “light monoplane,” a small single-seat aircraft. He wanted to make flying available to the average person. Epps did not have the resources to produce his monoplane, but it foreshadowed the later success of William Piper with his famous Cub aircraft in 1931. Meanwhile Epps, who was largely limited to weekend flights because of his garage business, taught his children and many others to fly. His eldest son, Ben Epps Jr. (1916-2001), at age thirteen was at the time the youngest pilot ever to solo and attracted so much attention that President Herbert Hoover invited him to the White House. The Epps father-and-son team became popular “barnstorming” stars of stunt flying and air races in Georgia.
Epps died in an airplane crash in a test flight near Athens in 1937. His son Ben Jr. joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, and in World War II (1941-45) he flew a C-46 over the Himalayan Mountains, providing supplies to the “Flying Tigers” in China, Burma, and India. In 1994 Ben Epps Jr. was enshrined in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, in which his father had been honored as a charter member. Ben Jr.’s youngest brother, Pat, owns Epps Aviation, based at DeKalb Peachtree Airport in Atlanta.