The Weird World of Folk Aviators

With his whimsical sculptures, Gregory Bryant celebrates early ideas about winged flight.

(Eric Long, NASM)

In 2004, Gregory Bryant was asked to scan an illustration of a steam-powered flying machine that never flew, and in fact never could have come close to flying. Tom Crouch, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, had been researching the “Aerial Steamboat” proposed by one A.A. Mason of Ohio, who, according to a newspaper article from 1834, was planning to fly his invention that summer in Queen City.

After seeing the illustration, Bryant—an artist who has worked at the Museum for 34 years—was inspired to make a model of Mason's contraption (above). The model took him three months to complete. “I found out after the fact,” he says, “that the drawing that I based the model on was extremely inaccurate. In contemporary newspaper accounts there's absolutely no mention of wheels whatsoever. And the type of steam engine that the illustrator used didn't come into existence until the 1880s.

“The illustration is whimsical and absurd, and that caught my fancy,” says Bryant. So began his obsession with what he calls “folk aviation,” which has led him to create replicas of nearly a dozen would-be flying machines proposed by mostly forgotten inventors and dreamers. See the gallery above for more of Bryant's sculptures.

Made of cardboard, twine, paper, cooking skewers, wood dowels, tempera paint, fingernail polish.

William Powers

(Eric Long, NASM)

During the Civil War, engineer William Powers came up with an idea for breaking the Northern blockade of Southern harbors. “His idea was to create this—again, steam-powered—helicopter-type design,” says Bryant, “which he was going to use to bomb the northern ships.”

"The engine was to rotate a shaft and gears," writes historian Juliette Hennessy, "and drive two pairs of rotors or air-screws, one pair to raise the craft vertically, the other pair to drive it horizontally. A rudder was provided for steering and a rolling weight for balancing the craft fore and aft." After completing his design, Powers worried that it would fall into Yankee hands, so he hid the plans in his attic, where they remained until 1940. That was when Paul Garber (the first curator of the Air Museum, which later became the National Air and Space Museum) acquired the model and the drawings.

After modeling his first two flying machines, Bryant began casting about for other things to build. “It's a fascinating, fascinating field,” he says. “We know about people like William Powers, and because Tom Crouch happened to stumble across A.A. Mason, we preserve his memory. But how many others are there? We have no way of knowing. In North America [alone] it could be dozens, or even hundreds of people. We just don't know the scope of folk aviation.”

Made of Federal Express cardboard boxes, paper, found materials.

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