Ben Epps (1888-1937)
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.
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
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.
Dictionary of Georgia Biography, ed. Kenneth Coleman and Charles Stephen Gurr (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983), s.v. "Epps, Benjamin Thomas."
Ben Epps: The Legacy of Georgia's First Aviator, writ. and prod. William J. Evelyn, narr. Dick Mendenhall (Athens: University of Georgia, 2001), film.
Paul Stephen Hudson, Georgia Perimeter State College
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