The Turkey Buzzard

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

Many people associate the name of Gatling with the famous Gatling Machine Gun, but few associate the name with a flying machine. However in 1873 another Gatling flew a heavy-than-air machine on the family farm near Murfreesboro, North Carolina.

James Henry Gatling, the older brother of Richard of Gatling Gun fame, took flight on a Sunday afternoon and according to witnesses’ flew up to 100 feet before crashing into a tree. Some of the amazed witnesses dubbed the machine, “The Turkey Buzzard,” a vulture that resembles a common turkey.

The machine was 18 feet long and had a wingspan of 14 feet. It had features that are prescient of the Wright Brothers machine.

It had a vertical elevator in front for vertical control and a tail in the rear for yawl control. Both were connected to a lever in the cockpit. A built-in wooden chair was provided for the pilot in a cockpit within a fuselage made of a light popular wood.

The monoplane wings were made of 1/8-inch thick woven white-oak splits in a triangular shape. They were hinged to the fuselage and could be adjusted up and down while flying by a lever connected to wires attached to the wing tips.

Twin blowers propelled the machine, one under each wing. Air was drawn into the curved blower casings containing paddle wheels and blown out under each wing to provide lift. The pilot used muscle power to turn the fans by cranking a hand wheel in the cockpit.

The machine had a tricycle landing gear. The wheels were cut from logs. The solid front wheels were 2 1/2-feet in diameter and the solid rear wheel was 18-inches in diameter.

Henry had many of the same interests and characteristics of the Wright Brothers. As a youth, he was interested in mechanical things and enjoyed taking them apart and putting them back together again to find out they worked. He made and flew kites and wooden model airplanes and dreamed of flying while observing buzzards.

At the age of 57, he decided to realize his long held dream by designing and constructing his flying machine. His plan was to take off from a 12-foot high platform protruding from his cotton gin, fly east to a point some 400 yards from his farm near Como, NC, and fly back.

On a Sunday afternoon he had 6 bystanders push the machine off the platform while he cranked the blowers as fast as he could. The machine reportedly flew over a 4-foot fence, turned to the left and hit an elm tree with a wing. The force spun the machine around and it crashed, with Henry escaping somewhat dazed, but with only minor injuries.

The original machine was destroyed in a fire. Now, some 20 hard working volunteers have invested 1700 man-hours in building a full-size replica of the machine. The accompanying picture shows some of them as well as yours truly.

The machine is located in the historic district of Murfreesboro in a temporary site. They plan to build a permanent residence once they raise the money.

They hope to attract visitors on their way to Kitty Hawk to stop in and see the Turkey Buzzard. While there they can see magnificent historical homes, some of them dating back to the 18th century, and visit their impressive museums.

Did the Turkey Buzzard really fly? That depends on whom you talk to. Some say that it rapidly descended to the ground, others say it flew as far as 100 feet. One witness said it flew very well but had difficulty landing.

Henry himself realized that muscle power alone was insufficient to generate the lift to overcome the weight of his machine. He was examining the possible use of an electric motor at the time of his death.

He asked his younger brother, Richard, for his ideas, but unlike the Wright Brothers, apparently Richard didn’t think much of his brother’s attempt to fly and was of little help.

Another problem was that Henry’s idea of blowing air on the underside of the wings was not aerodynamically sound. He apparently was unaware of the Bernoulli principle whereby lift is created by the pressure differential of airflow over the wings.

Also, the machine was unstable and uncontrollable. The problem of control was not solved until the Wright Brothers developed their system for dealing with pitch, roll and yaw that made flight possible.

However, Henry’s use of a vertical tail was innovative in that most gliders at the time did not use this feature. Also, his insight in the employment of a front elevator, fuselage, monoplane wings with twin engines, tricycle landing gear and the ability to change the shape of the wings in flight were innovative for his time.

Henry met an untimely end on September 2, 1879. He was shot in the head over a minor dispute by a neighbor with a shotgun. Henry never flew more than the one time.

The Turkey Buzzard is an historic machine worth noting in the long history of man’s attempt to fly.

“Darius was clearly of the opinion,
That the air is also man’s dominion,
And that, with paddle of fin or pinion,
We soon or late
Shall navigate
The azure as now we sail the sea.”

“Darius Green and his Flying Machine” by John T. Trowbridge, (1870).

The Turkey Buzzard may not have flown in the 1800s, but it has now become a modern tourist attraction. Four volunteers drive a trailer containing the machine to sites such as regional airports. The machine stays on the trailer during display. One of the volunteers turn the pedals to show how it was supposed to work.

The charge is a dollar per mile between Murfreeboro and the place of destination with a minimum charge of $200. There is no charge for the display.

References: First to Fly, North Carolina and The Beginning of Aviation, Thomas C. Parramore. “The Roanoke-Chowan Story,” F. Roy Johnson. Editorial, “A Useful Invention,” Goldsboro News-Argus, Mike Rouse.

Previous post:

Next post: