Will North Carolina have to relinquish its "First in Flight" license plate slogan to Connecticut? Evidence suggests that a German-born inventor began flying around the New England state nearly two and a half years before Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their now famous Flyer 1 at Kill Devil Kills, N.C. in 1903.
More than 80 articles from period papers and technical journals chronicle several successful flight tests by Bridgeport, Connecticut's Gustave Whitehead from 1901 to 1903. Unfortunately for Whitehead, his knack for financial organization and self promotion was light years behind the Wrights, who successfully eclipsed his efforts to gain recognition over the years.
For Wilbur Wright, keeping his family's aviation achievements at the forefront of world consciousness was a serious business. He badmouthed Whitehead's work throughout his life, even calling the pre-Wright flights a "legend" in 1945. Documentation has been uncovered suggesting that the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, in an effort to keep Wright Flyer 1 in its collection, agreed not to stray from the Wrights-first-in-flight party line.
On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wrights succeeded in getting the Wright Flyer 1 off the ground for a few flights of 10-20 seconds, flying less than 200 feet in a straight line, about 10 feet off the ground. A photographer was on hand to record the now famous moment.
By contrast, the Bridgeport Herald reported that on Aug. 14, 1901, Gustave Whitehead piloted his No. 21 Flyer over a half mile of Connecticut turf at an altitude of about 40 feet. A remarkable machine, Whitehead's aircraft had wings that folded along the sides of the fuselage so that it could be driven like a car as well. The Herald reporter noted that it could get up to 30 mph on rough road – not a light feat by the day's automotive standards.
The controversy has been the subject of scholarly debate at various times over the past 110-plus years. Detractors of the Whitehead-first theory dismiss the Bridgeport Herald's 1901 article as myth, but Whitehead's aeronautical exploits were also documented in a Sept. 1903 article in Scientific American. Of a series of affidavits collected more than three decades after the Wrights' claimed first flight status, many corroborated Whitehead's position as number one, although a few denied that he had made the flights first.
What does all this mean? In the long run, probably not much more than the amendment of a few monument placards and, perhaps, some long overdue credit to the real first person to fly a powered, heavier than air plane. But the Wright brothers' impact on aviation was and is still huge. Nearly all airplanes are still based upon their three-axis control design.
Even though Gustave Whitehead's plane was first, when's the last time you saw a dragon-winged boat lofting overhead?
Photo credit: Wikipedia
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