Did Connecticut man beat Wright brothers to first in flight?
By Jack Torry The Columbus Dispatch • Wednesday December 31, 2014 5:30 AM
WASHINGTON — Now here is an argument you never thought would take place in the 21st century.
Ohio and North Carolina have formed an alliance to counter a claim made last year by the Connecticut legislature that the first flight was conducted not in 1903 by Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., but by one Gustave Whitehead two years earlier in Connecticut.
At stake are bragging rights by Dayton and Kitty Hawk. Dayton calls itself the birthplace of aviation because the Wright brothers designed and built their plane in the southwestern Ohio city. North Carolina claims to be first in flight because the initial flight took place in Kitty Hawk.
If the Connecticut legislature is right, then the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina would have to do some major rewriting of history. And Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton might need a new name.
“They are challenging something that is long established,” said indignant state Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek. “If they had some credible evidence, I would be the first to say we need to look at it. But I have not seen anything from the other side — indisputable and convincing evidence for what has been established for over a century.”
Perales has introduced a resolution declaring that “scholarly research by respected and academically credentialed historians over decades have found no evidence to substantiate” the claim that Whitehead deserves credit for inventing the airplane.
Tim Gaffney, director of communications for the National Aviation Heritage Area near Dayton, said, “This battle has been going on for decades. Once every 10 or 20 years somebody brings it up, and people who care about history stand up and refute it. Once everybody has a chance to look at the facts, it goes away for a while.”
The latest round was triggered last year when Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft — pretty much the gold standard on aviation news — declared that while the Wright brothers “were right,” Whitehead was first.
That prompted Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to sign a proclamation honoring “the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace history.”
According to an article in the Aug. 18, 1901, edition of the Bridgeport Herald, Whitehead flew a machine at about 30 mph for about a half mile. (From Fairfield)
And while there is no photograph that can be proved to show Whitehead flying, there are photographs of his plane — complete with propellers — on the ground.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum stands by the Wright brothers as the first to fly, and, in the opinion of aviation researchers, the weight of evidence tilts toward them.
Writing last year in The Aviation Historian, a British journal devoted to classic airplanes, Managing Editor Mick Oakley declared that “despite the overwhelming consensus among aviation historians that” in 1903 “ Wilbur and Orville Wright were the first to achieve powered, sustained, and controlled heavier-than-air flight, there have been rival claims on behalf of other pioneers.”
“All have been tested in the court of specialist peer-review and found wanting,” Oakley wrote.