June 10, 2013
When it comes to the Wright Bros, history books have it wrong, according to the Connecticut state government.
Orville and Wilbur Wright are historically known as the first to successfully take powered flight, taking their Wright Flyer into the skies around Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. However, the Connecticut Senate on Wednesday (June 5) passed a bill that essentially strips that title away from the aeronautical duo, and passes the torch onto another who had taken the first flight a few years earlier.
Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant living in Boston and New York, is claimed by at least one Connecticut newspaper to be the first to fly, lifting off for a ten minute flight over Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1901.
A Bridgeport Sunday Herald report dated August 18, 1901 gives the account of the first successful flight in exciting detail. The report has also been supported by a respected aviation reference guide, which could cause some uproar with the Smithsonian, which has long held the Wright Bros as the inventors of powered flight. In fact, a “contract” between the Smithsonian and the estate of Orville Wright requires the institution to refer to the Wright Bros as the first in flight.
However, if the Connecticut bill becomes law – it awaits passage now – it would rewrite history books everywhere. Not only have the Wrights been labeled as American pioneers of aviation in history books, but they have appeared on postage stamps and US currency. Even the state of North Carolina labels its license plates with the phrase “First in Flight.”
The Smithsonian’s aviation historian, Tom Crouch, said in a blog in April that the claims that Whitehead was the first in powered flight are not legitimate. He gives a detailed analysis of why Whitehead’s claims are unwarranted. “Justice is at risk. Credit should go where credit is deserved,” he wrote.
He wrote that experts tried to find witnesses quoted in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald story. But only one of two named witnesses could be found and that witness said the flight never happened, according to Crouch.
As well, Whitehead never kept any documents detailing his experiments in flight, Crouch wrote.
Paul Jackson, editor of “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” which has endorsed the Whitehead claim, wrote in the publication’s 100th anniversary edition: “An injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville’s reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead.”
Jackson pointed to research unearthed by an Australian aviation historian, John Brown. Brown says he has found photographic evidence that backs up the Whitehead flight. While rummaging through a museum attic in Germany last year, Brown said he found a lost photo that may depict the plane in flight.
“It was quite an emotional moment for me. I just jumped up in the air screaming,” Brown told CNN’s Thom Patterson, referring to the moment when experts confirmed the photo was authentic.
However, according to Crouch, the image is too blurry and doesn’t depict an airplane at all.
Brown concurs that the image is too blurry to offer definitive proof, but noted that it does lend credence to the fact that journalists and witnesses were on hand during the 1901 flight. By the 1930s, more than a dozen witnesses had been found that reported seeing the plane in the skies; at least 14 witnesses were notarized. Based on the testimonials, Brown believes Whitehead did indeed fly before the Wrights.
As for the contract between the estate of Orville Wright and the Smithsonian, one particular clause demonstrates that even the Wright Bros may have known of Whitehead’s earlier attempt in flight. The clause states that if the Smithsonian ever tries to claim that another person had made flight before the Wright Bros, it would lose its right to host the Wright Flyer in its museum.
Crouch said the Smithsonian is not bound by that clause. “If I found evidence that I think indicated somebody else had flown before the Wrights, I would say so.”
Connecticut State Rep. Charles Clemons Jr., a sponsor of the bill to name Whitehead as the true first in flight pioneer, acknowledged that there is reasoning behind the bill’s passage. If Whitehead was to be named first in flight, it “will put Bridgeport on the map.” It would also mean money and prestige. The city would “become synonymous with being first in flight, which would enable us to have a museum. With that, we would generate some tourist attractions.”
“We were surprised. Pleasantly surprised,” Whitehead’s great-grandson Curtis Mitchell told NY Daily News, referring to his family’s reaction to the passage of the bill.
“Ever since I was maybe 2 1/2 years old, whenever my grandmother Rose would babysit me, she would sit me on her lap and pull out the photo album and tell me stories,” Mitchell recalled to the Daily News. “We’re all happy with what has transpired.”
While Crouch says Brown, Jane’s and others continue to try to uproot the Wright’s as first in flight, they are not the only ones trying to take away the thunder. He told CNN that millions of Brazilians believe their aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, was the actual man who invented the airplane. “Brazil claims Santos-Dumont was first because his aircraft had wheels, and the Wright’s launched on rails,” Crouch noted.
Also, Ohio has gotten in on the action, vying for some recognition as being the state where the Wright Bros conspired. Dayton, which is the Wright’s hometown, was where they worked on most of their plans to become the first in flight.
As for Whitehead, Brown is positive that he will gain national recognition for his efforts, especially when it comes to re-writing history books. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. They can’t ignore it now, it’s developed too far now,” Brown said.
Smithsonian Communications Director Claire Brown said that if any other plane was ruled to be the first in flight, the only thing that will change at the Smithsonian is that the Wright Flyer would go back to the estate of Orville Wright.