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Historian Propels Connecticut To Claim 'First In Flight'

Gustave Whitehead and the No. 21. Connecticut claims that Whitehead's half-mile flight in 1901 was the first flight, not the well-known Wright brothers' flight that occurred two years later.
Courtesy Deutsches Flugpioniermuseum Gustav Weisskopf Leutershausen/Historical Flight Research Committee Gustave Whitehead
Gustave Whitehead and the No. 21. Connecticut claims that Whitehead's half-mile flight in 1901 was the first flight, not the well-known Wright brothers' flight that occurred two years later.

The ongoing battle between historians over who was really first in flight was rekindled last week.

New research advances the theory that a German immigrant in Connecticut is responsible for the first powered and controlled flight, rather than the Wright brothers in North Carolina.

But historians at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum are saying not so fast.

Finding The Evidence

You can now order a "No. 21" breakfast at Chip's Family Restaurant in Connecticut. It's named after the airplane model that Gustave Whitehead allegedly flew for half a mile at an altitude of 50 feet on Aug. 14, 1901. That's more than two years before Orville and Wilbur Wright's famous run in Kitty Hawk. And the No. 21, an omelet with hamburger filling alongside German apple pancakes — in honor of Whitehead's heritage — is just the beginning.

"Our license plate should say 'firster in flight,' " says Bill Finch, the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., where the flight supposedly happened.

Historians have known for decades about an article in the Bridgeport Herald describing Whitehead's 1901 flight, but they haven't seen the original photo that should have accompanied it.

John Brown works at an aircraft construction company in northern Germany. He's also a hobby historian.

Our license plate should say 'firster in flight.'

While rummaging through a dusty museum attic in Bavaria, Brown came across a picture from a 1906 exhibition on flight innovation. On display in the background of that picture was a photo of what looked like Whitehead's No. 21 airplane in flight. He also found dozens more newspaper articles describing the 1901 flight.

"I found out such stunning stuff about Mr. Whitehead. But really I'm not the highest authority in aviation. I sent all of the stuff that I found to the highest authority, which is Jane's All the World's Aircraft in England," he says.

And Paul Jackson, editor of that internationally renowned publication, has ruled that Whitehead deserves the honor of first in flight — not the Wright brothers. Jackson says it's not likely the Bridgeport Herald writer and dozens of others lied in 1901. And now there's the original photo to prove it.

"The evidence cannot be shaken off anymore, thanks to John Brown's researching," Jackson says.

Questions Arise

But Peter Jakab, associate director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, finds it "a little puzzling." He says the photo is too blurry — after all, it was enlarged by 3,500 percent.

"To my mind, it's really trying to see what you want to see in the image," Jakab says. "Again, it's a picture of a picture on the back wall of an exhibition. It's very, very indistinct."

Jakab and his colleagues at the Smithsonian firmly believe that the Wright brothers were the first to fly. There are clear and crisp photos to prove it. And he discounts the numerous newspaper stories about the Whitehead flight.

"An AP story is written, and it goes out, and it appears in many, many publications. That doesn't mean that every one of those is a separate, eyewitness account," he says.

But Whitehead supporters have a darker explanation for why the Wright brothers have dominated the story. The Smithsonian, they say, has built an empire around the Wright brothers.

If you walk into the National Air and Space Museum, the first thing you see is the Wright airplane — which was sold to the Smithsonian for $1 in 1948. Jane's editor Paul Jackson says there were other conditions.

"They had to agree with Orville Wright that they would never say that anybody else had flown a powered, manned aircraft before they had done," Jackson says.

He thinks the Smithsonian is in a difficult position: Admit that Whitehead was first in flight, and lose one of its most valuable exhibits.

But Jakab says he would never let a contract stand in the way of a historical fact.

"If that's some sort of personal sanction to how I interpret the evidence, of course not," he says.

If he decides Whitehead flew first and the Smithsonian loses the plane, then so be it, Jakab says. For now, he isn't budging.

But whoever is right, there are sure to be new monuments, museum exhibits and dishes like "Whitehead sausage" served in Bridgeport. And maybe even new license plates.

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Public

Corrected: March 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this online story contained a photo with an incorrect caption. The caption stated that the photo showed Orville Wright piloting the powered Wright Flyer, but the aircraft in the photo was a glider.
Neena Satija