North Carolina Centennial of Flight

James Henry Gatling

James Henry Gatling, a Hertford County native, began a life-long fascination with flight by observing birds and building kites as a child. He experimented with wings made of hay and once, to the amusement of his neighbors, jumped from a barn loft holding an umbrella. The older brother of Richard J. Gatling, inventor of the Gatling gun, Henry was himself an industrious and creative man. In addition to inventing a cotton stalk chopper and a wood-preserving method, Gatling was a farmer, hunter, fisherman, miller, and winemaker.

Gatling finished building North Carolina's first airplane in 1873. Twin wooden propellers were powered by cranking a handwheel, and more cockpit levers operated the front elevator , vertical rudder , and wings. Using poplar and thin pieces of oak, Gatling built a fuselage and wings light enough to be sustained by muscle power alone. Gatling supposed that once his plane was airborne, the machine wouldn't require as much of his energy.

vertical rudder

A hinged airfoil mounted at the tail of an aircraft and used to make horizontal course changes.


The central body of an aircraft.


A movable control surface, usually attached to the horizontal stabilizer of an aircraft, that is used to produce motion up or down.

While concerned for the plane's weight, Gatling's design overlooked the wingspan. The craft was eighteen-feet long with a wingspan of only fourteen feet, not enough for successful flight. Gatling planned to fly the craft from atop a twelve-foot high platform on his gin mill to a road a mile away, now Highway 258. On a Sunday afternoon in 1873, his farmhands pushed him off the platform while Gatling cranked the handwheel. The plane was aloft only a short distance before Gatling crashed into an elm tree at the edge of his yard. He received minor injuries, but never flew again. His plane was destroyed in a fire in 1905.

In October 2001, carpentry students at Roanoke-Chowan Community College began constructing a full-scale replica of the 1873 Gatling flyer. The airplane is on display at the Agriculture and Transportation Museum in Historic Murfreesboro.