In 1783 Etienne Montgolfier stepped into the basket of a silk and paper hot-air balloon to make the first recorded manned flight, with others to soon follow.
A young boy would be aboard the first manned glider flight in 1853 and by 1891 glider flights were being controlled.
Hamblen County’s Melville Murrell had patented a “flying machine” in 1877 which would see a short human-assisted flight some years later. John Crozier of Thorn Hill had built a glider he planned to motorize in 1901, but was murdered that same year.
One hundred and twenty years after the Montgolfier balloon flight, Orville Wright would make the first powered flight in 1903. A jet plane would fly in 1939, and humans would fly to the moon in 1969, only 66 years after Wright’s primitive airplane flight.
Karen Hughes Collins is the president of the local Experimental Aircraft Association which meets at the Morristown Airport for breakfasts on the first Saturday of each month and the first Thursday of each month for food, hangar talk and an aviation program. The group holds frequent youth workshops and are presently working on a remote controlled craft with a 7 foot wingspan. The EAA keeps a full calendar of aircraft events that range from regular pilots to those who have unique aircraft. The association has annually sponsored a fly-in which lately has attracted several World War II flying machines, while also sponsoring a large Young Eagles group of young people from age 8 through 17. The goal of the Young Eagles program is to create interest in aviation, and possibly spark interest into becoming a pilot.
The EAA dates from 1953 when a small group of amateur aircraft builders gathered to share their experiences. “The Baby Ace” would be an EAA craft that would put the group on the map, with the single-seat Pitt Special biplane also becoming very popular.
From its early days the EAA would quickly grow from a national to an international group with 200,000 members with 1,000 chapters across the world that would include 17 chapters in Tennessee.
Following the first days of flight, Hamblen County would see “barnstormers” appear in mostly surplus World War I airplanes to put on shows and give rides to the locals. In the 1930s an airport would be built on the top edge of Hamblen County, mostly as a stopover for long flights. In 1944, a formal local airport would be built in Russellville. (That airport’s building, later to be called the “Blinky Moon, is now located at the Morristown airport and is in bad condition.) The present Morristown airport would be opened in 1953 and would be managed by the legendary Evelyn Johnson, who would go on to national fame, and could be found at the airport after her 100th birthday. Another pioneer from the airport’s early days, J.B. Marshall, is still working at the facility.
Karen would mention one of the early builders and flyers at the airport, Neil Williams, a name that I was very familiar with. Neil and his brother Reece were the sons of Robert “Uncle Bobby” and Malinda Hoskins Williams, who owned a 27 acre farm on Morristown’s West Andrew Johnson Highway in the area of the present Golden Corral restaurant.
Father Robert would continue his custom of growing a patch of tobacco while the brothers would have two shop buildings near the farm house.
Both brothers were known for high-quality work in the wood working and the metal fabrication buildings, and despite different personality, they got along well together. .
As a young teenager, the Williams would pay this future high-powered newspaper writer $3.00 a day to work in their tobacco crop. That work day would include a loaded down dinner (lunch in today’s jargon) table for the midday meal prepared by Granny Williams A workday might include my doing some chores in the two work buildings and I can remember my amazement at seeing Neil working on an airplane in the wood working shop. He would eventually build or work on 7 airplanes.
Karen mentioned that Neil had been one of Evelyn’s first flight students, and we’d learn that the two had two distinct philosophies of flying.
Neil was sometimes known to fly by the seat of his pants while Evelyn was known as a by-the-book pilot I would later learn more about Neil’s flying skills after seeing a couple of his planes taking flight at the airport.
It would stay in my mind that here was a man building a high-powered airplane only sixty-odd years after the first motorized flight. Following his retirement at age 62, Neil would continue working with wood by building rocking horses and beautiful furniture for those close to him He would continue flying with his last flight being on his 90th birthday and would pass away in 2021 at age 94.
Sixty years would pass when I was reminded of those days on the Willams farm. That would be followed by her telling of Donna Williams Stansberry who had continued her dad’s interest in flying, and we would soon be meeting with Donna. The Williams gene is obvious in Donna, who seems to carry the wonderful people skills that were similar to her dad and her Uncle Reece.
Donna Williams Stansberry would be born in 1954 in Morristown the daughter of Orville Neil and ‘Bobby Bales Williams.
She would have a brother Roger ‘and a sister Ann Devers. That farm would cross the railroad track to the south, where her father had a landing strip. After attending Manley School, Donna would be in the first four-year graduating class of West High School in 1972. After working at the Cherokee Health System, she would head to ETSU where she would graduate in 1977.
Following college, she would work at the Department of Human Services in Morristown and would become the director of Sevier County’s DHS before moving to spend 26 years as an instructor at WSCC.
She would retire in 2018. Not satisfied with retirement, she would return to work with the Grainger County newspaper and serve as the president of the Grainger County Industrial board. “I just like to be out with people,” she explained.
“My father only had a G.E.D., but he was a brilliant man. Dad had been in the Army, but was given an Honorable Discharge after 6 months. He’d build a lot of his plane in the basement, and even sewed the fabric to put on the wings. I know why they call the glue ‘dope’ because we would all be high when he was putting the dope on the fabric.
“When Dad finished one plane, he had to haul it to the airport and the police chief would lead him down the highway to the airport. Dad bought a J3 Cub and I flew with him.
“At 15 I started taking lessons from Evelyn, soloed on my 16th birthday and earned my pilot’s license on my 17th birthday. I got my commercial license at 18 and was thought to have been the youngest student in the state to have done that. She left a note in my car one time for buzzing the Brentwood community while they were having Bible study.
“Dad had been Evelyn’s first student who earned a pilot’s license”, Donna ended. “He and Evelyn were good friends. Evelyn saw him land one day and his plane flipped over during the landing. Dad only got a few scratches, but a man had brought his wife to the airport to see about getting her license and turned around and went back home.”
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