Early Pilots in Aviation

When you think back to the earliest pilots in aviation, your mind quickly goes to two names. Orville and Wilbur Wright. And rightfully (no pun intended) so. 117 years ago, the two brothers piloted the first airplane near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. And thus, North Carolina got the title of “First in Flight.”

West Virginia also has a seat at the table when it comes to the early pilots in aviation. The mountain state is home to a pioneer in aviation. Paul Peck was a world record holder, the first pilot to transport U.S. Mail, and one of the first U.S. Military aviation instructors. And he was also from West Virginia.

Who was Paul Peck?

Born in 1889 in Ansted, West Virginia, Peck grew up in Hinton. As a kid, Peck took an interest in cars and liked to work on their motors. His love of machinery, specifically engines, led him to the skies.

In 1911, just seven years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Peck took his first flight lesson at 22-years-old. He would go on to learn how to fly in just seven days and became the 57th pilot to be licensed by the International Aeronautics Federation. Peck is often thought of as the first pilot in West Virginia.

Two weeks after earning his pilot’s license, Peck set a world speed record in Washington, DC covering 24 miles in 25 minutes. Peck would go on to do many other firsts as a pilot.

  • The first pilot to carry U.S. Mail via airplane
  • The first pilot to fly over the U.S. Capitol (set the speed record)
  • Set an endurance record in Boston, flying for four hours, 23 minutes, and 15 seconds
  • One of three officers chosen by the War Department to learn to fly under Glenn H. Curtiss
  • An instructor at the nation’s first military aviation school

Peck was well known in his day for being able to fly extremely well in stormy weather, once setting a world record during a hailstorm. However, a storm ultimately led to his death.

Peck’s Final Flight

Peck’s final flight was in 1912, just one year after becoming a pilot. Peck was representing the United States in the International Gordon Bennett Trophy Race in Chicago. On a windy and stormy evening before the race, Peck took off on what would be his final flight. During his ascent, the motor on Peck’s plane came loose. His plane went into a steep and rapid descent and Peck was unable to pull up before the plane hit the ground. He was 23 years old when he died.

Why then, with all of these accomplishments, is Peck’s name not up there with the Wright Brothers, Lindbergh, and other early pilots in aviation? Good question. Peck died only one year after he started flying. You could argue that he did not fly long enough to achieve name recognition. However, you could also argue that given all of the accomplishments listed above were all done in less than a year, Peck’s name should be much more widely known. Especially in his home state of West Virginia.

And for what it is worth. In 1923, 12 years after Paul Peck passed away, a man by the name of Charles Yeager was born in Myra, West Virginia. So, I would say the mountain state definitely has a seat at the table when it comes to pioneering modern aviation.

 

Information for this article was gathered from the Charleston Gazette and West Virginia Tourism.