Epps family was there from Georgia’s aviation beginning

 - September 20, 2007, 11:23 AM

While this year’s NBAA Convention commemorates the association’s 60th anniversary, show planners are taking advantage of its Atlanta location to celebrate another milestone–the centennial of powered flight in Georgia.

One local family was there at the beginning and has since become virtually synonymous with aviation in Georgia. In 1907, four years after the Wright brothers’ historic first flight, Athens, Ga. electrician, bicycle repairer and tinkerer Ben Epps designed and flew a homebuilt aircraft (see sidebar). That began the Epps family’s love affair with aviation, which thrives to this day. Of Ben’s 10 children, nine went on to earn their pilot certificates. Of his six sons, five served in the military.

Epps Aviation, begun in 1964 by three of Ben Epps’ sons, is now one of the South’s largest full-service FBOs. Occupying 20 acres at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport–the site of a World War II naval air base where two of Ben’s daughters gave pilot instruction in a Link simulator–the company also provides air charter service, avionics sales and installation and aircraft sales. The family remains firmly enmeshed in the daily operations. Pat Epps bought his brothers out of the business in the early 1980s, and his three children (all of whom have their pilot certificates) are vital cogs in the operation. Marian is the company’s chief financial officer and assists with Epps’ growing aircraft management business. Patrick is the customer service manager in the maintenance department, and Elaine serves as the company’s marketing director.

Now 73, Pat Epps looks back on his start in the industry with a sense of amusement, given his family’s rich aviation background. “What is kind of incongruous is that I never thought of being in the aircraft business,” he said. “It never crossed my mind.” After graduating from Georgia Tech, Epps worked for Boeing as a flight engineer on the legendary “Dash 80,” the prototype 707 which inaugurated modern air travel. In 1957 he joined the Air Force where he eventually became a co-pilot on four-engine C-97 Stratofreighters and an instructor on C-123 Provider cargo transports.

After he left the Air Force, Pat and one of his older brothers saw an ad recruiting Mooney aircraft dealers and decided to pursue it. “You call Mooney and say, ‘What does it take to be a dealer?’” said Pat Epps. “A week later a guy comes and sells you an airplane and now you are a dealer. That’s the way it occurred. In 1964 [we] got a distributorship for Mooney in Georgia, and in 1965 I quit my engineering job and went to work full time” selling light airplanes. Today, Epps Aviation employs more than 150 people and has added Pilatus aircraft to its sales offerings. According to the company, it has already nearly exhausted its 2009 inventory of the workhorse turboprop.

Epps, winner of this year’s NBAA Doswell Award and a 1999 recipient of NBAA’s American Spirit award for his service to the aviation community, demonstrated his passion for aviation by becoming involved in the quest to recover a lost WWII Lockheed P-38, part of a group of aircraft that ran out of fuel and was forced to land on the Greenland ice cap more than 60 years ago. The twin-engine fighter, excavated from below 250 feet of ice, was later restored, renamed Glacier Girl and recently flown in an attempt to complete its ill-fated journey to England.

Epps, a sponsor and a member of five of the grueling recovery expeditions, said finding the abandoned airplane became somewhat of an obsession. “Down here we call it a tar baby [a reference to the children’s story of Brer Rabbit], something you got into, you really didn’t mean to get into it, but you got so deep into it you couldn’t get out.”

Epps has applied the lesson learned from that experience to his business. “It doesn’t matter how many times you stumble. If you pick yourself up and keep going, maybe you will succeed. In our case, we lucked out and did get the airplane, so it was a good story,” he said.

Daughter Elaine Persons said that persistence is part of what has made Epps Aviation a landmark of the Georgia aviation landscape. “I’m not saying this just because he’s my father. He’s one of those people who keeps to his word. He’s gone through the good times and the bad times [such as the fatal crash of a company-managed Challenger 604 in 2002 or the 2004 accident involving an Epps-owned MU-2, both believed to have been caused by pilot error]. It’s just his positive outlook, looking forward instead of looking back at the bad things that have happened or mistakes you made.”

Epps sees clear skies ahead for the industry. “We continue to build, and the opportunity now is very good in general aviation over the next 10 or 20 years as opposed to what I would have told you in the early 1990s. I would not have encouraged you to get into the airplane business then, but now it is very bright, very promising of a good future,” he said.

It’s not every family that can claim an airport with their name on it. There are those named after presidents–John F. Kennedy International in New York, or George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, for example. Some–such as Louis Armstrong New Orleans International or Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif.–are named after entertainers, but the Athens-Ben Epps Airport in Georgia carries the name of an aviation pioneer, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of his first aviation achievement.

In 1907, when he was just 19 years old, after attending just one year of study at Georgia Tech, Athens resident Ben Epps designed, built and flew the first aircraft in the state of Georgia. Epps went on to build another seven aircraft of his own design, give flying lessons, perform in barnstorming shows and, after World War I, establish the airfield in Athens that today bears his name. Ultimately, it would be Epps’ passion for aviation that would claim his life in the crash of one of his aircraft, 30 years after that first historic flight.

To honor the centennial of Georgia’s first flight, Harris Lowery, another Athens resident, was asked to build a replica of Epps’ first aircraft. That replica is hanging in the lobby of the Georgia World Congress Center. Lowery, who works in the aviation insurance industry, had assembled homebuilt kit aircraft in the past, but he found more challenge in this replica. “There was a set of plans that someone had done. They were incomplete, but they were pretty good in detail,” he said. “I’m one of those people, if you give me a picture of it, I can build it for you.”

Using the plans, which fill up a wall 20 feet wide and eight feet high, Lowery was able to understand how the 1907 aircraft was constructed. “The fuselage is a very simple system of connected pieces of wood and some strap steel holding the wheels on. The rest of it is pretty simple, with screws and bracing and some wire guides,” he said. While Epps, like the Wrights, worked with bicycles, Lowery noted that the former’s first effort differed in several ways from the famous Wright Flyer. “The Wrights didn’t have wheels; he had wheels. The Wrights had two wings; he had a single wing, or a mono wing. I would say his probably weighed half as much as the Wright Flyer, too. In the future of things, he was on the right track,” he said.

All told, Lowery believes he spent about $1,400 on the replica. It will remain on display at the convention center until the end of NBAA’07, after which it will be placed on permanent display in one of the terminals at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.