Meet Lucean Headen: Barnstormer, Inventor, and Pioneering African-American Pilot

A new biography gives a mostly forgotten aviator his due.

Lucean Headen appeared on the front page of The New York Age in 1912, sitting at the controls of a Curtiss-type biplane. In 1917, the Chicago Defender summed up the laconic barnstormer by saying, “No one knows where he came from, where he is going or what he knows as he says nothing.” (Library of Congress Manuscript Division)
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Being one of the earliest known African-American aviators should be enough to get Lucean Arthur Headen into the history books. Never mind that he was also a prolific inventor, which included developing a cloaking device for ships that chased U-boats during World War I. He was fascinated by automobiles, and produced the Headen Pace Setter, a car with double the horsepower of its more popular contemporary, the Model T. Headen’s patents for de-icing aircraft wings and propellers are still cited today, some 60 years after his death, by such aeronautical giants as Boeing and Mitsubishi Aircraft. Yet Headen doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia stub.

That may change with the publication of Jill D. Snider’s new book, Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). An independent scholar, Snider first learned of Headen while working on her doctoral dissertation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when she saw his photo on the front page of a 1912 edition of The New York Age. “My dissertation was on early black pilots and the visions of aviation that developed among African Americans in the 1910s and 1920s,” she says. “Back when I started my work there was no Internet, so research in newspapers consisted of sitting in front of a microfilm reader scrolling for hours (often fruitlessly) through rolls of film. When you made a discovery of any kind it was special, but finding that photograph of Headen sitting behind the controls of an early Curtiss-type biplane made my week.”

Born in Carthage, North Carolina in 1879, Headen was obsessed with all things mechanical. His first invention (developed in 1910 while working as a railroad porter in Jersey City) was for a device to keep an aircraft stable while returning to level flight after banking. No drawings survive, and it doesn’t appear that Headen ever filed a patent. By late 1911, he headed for Long Island, New York for flight lessons, possibly inspired by Cal Rodgers’ first transcontinental flight. Once there Headen learned to fly through the Aeronautical Society. He tried to join the Aero Club of Illinois, but was rejected membership because of his race. “The Aero Club of New York was a chapter of the Aero Club of America, which was founded by some of the country’s wealthiest citizens,” says Snider. “Its members, hailing from the highest echelons of society, were men who could afford to travel the world and to invest in expensive ventures such as building and flying balloons, racing the first automobiles, and constructing planes. It was sort of a technological gentleman’s club, and as the term ‘club’ suggests, it was exclusive. The Aeronautic (later the Aeronautical) Society of New York did have some very wealthy members, but its broader membership also incorporated those from the middle class as well as tradesmen. Its mission was to popularize flying as widely as possible and to draw on the talents of a larger pool of people. I think its choice of the term ‘society’ rather than club’ reflects that.”

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Headen's 1917 passport photo. The 38-year-old inventor would travel to England to demonstrate his mirror camouflage system to the British Admiralty's Board of Invention and Research. (Courtesy National Archives)

Headen’s flight instructor may have been François Raiche, who had a flight school at the Mineola air field on Long Island. By 1912, Headen hoped to make his living through exhibition flying, but his plan was soon derailed. Most airshow promoters required participants to be licensed—Headen wasn’t—and he didn’t own an airplane. He had to rent or borrow one, probably from Raiche. His barnstorming career faltering, in 1914 Headen and his wife moved to Chicago. Because of his mechanical expertise, he was hired by white patent lawyer Wilmot Comfort Hawkins to evaluate patent prototypes. He took a second job as a chauffeur to Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick, who was also a pilot.

It was McCormick’s paper that announced, in 1917, that Headen had invented a cloaking device for submarine chasers. (The ship’s hull would be fitted with angled mirrors that would reflect images of the sky and water to anyone observing the vessel.) Headen demonstrated the technology to William Moffett at the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Ultimately, the Navy decided the glass was too heavy and expensive to produce, and turned to “dazzle painting” camouflage instead. Headen approached the British Admiralty with the idea, traveling to England in late 1917. The war ended just as his concept was put into development.

After returning to Chicago in 1919, Headen founded a car company and spent the next decade producing and racing cars and developing improvements for existing engines. He was still interested in aviation, however, and Snider has uncovered intriguing connections between Headen and two soon-to-be-famous Chicago aviators—Bessie Coleman and William J. Powell, who lived just three doors down from Headen’s garage.

By 1931, Headen had reached a crossroads. He was divorced, and was eager to return to England where he was recognized as an inventor, period—not “a Negro inventor,” as he was known in the United States. After relocating to England, he invented a gasket marketed for agricultural use, and adapted it for aircraft engines. “He did purchase a small Carden Flying Flea in the 1930s to test a popular anti-dilution gasket he patented in an airplane engine,” says Snider. “I found no evidence, though, that he was ever licensed to fly in the U.K., so he was probably testing the gasket while running the engine with the machine on the ground.”

In response to an Air Ministry call for proposals, Headen next turned to the problem of ice formation on wings, propellers, and control surfaces. Snider notes that many engineers tackled the problem by placing rubber “boots” on the leading edge of the wing. Once inflated, the boots cracked any existing ice on the wing. Headen took a different tack. His de-icing designs (patented in Britain, France, and Canada), used heated air. “He fashioned an outer jacket over the exhaust manifold to trap heat escaping from the engine and use it to warm air,” she writes. A blower forced the heated air into perforated tubes that ran the length of the wing. When de-icing wasn’t needed, the warm air could be routed into the cockpit. To de-ice propellers, Headen used a similar technique. His propeller patent would later be cited by aviation luminary Igor Sikorsky.

Headen remained in England for the next 30 years, until his death in 1957. In researching his biography, Snider was most impressed by the inventor’s tenacity and creativity. “Limited by segregation to work as a railroad porter for almost a decade,” she says, “he refused to give up his ambitions, and in 1911 risked life and limb to learn to fly. Once trained, he left his job to make exhibition flights in the South and Midwest. That’s not something many people 32 years old (his age at the time), would do. Later in his career, after building up a highly successful garage business in Chicago, he risked it all to start his car company and to enter auto racing. He was then already in his mid-40s. And he was 52 when he emigrated to England to start his engineering firm. He often defied expectations.” In England he was free to be himself. A British obituary simply describes him as “an American who settled in [the village of] Frimley Green.”

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