Historians Urge Connecticut to Reconsider First in Flight Claim

Aviation historians back the Wright Brothers.

Gustave Whitehead

Gustave Whitehead

** Gustave Whitehead**

Connecticut lawmakers hoping to adopt the coveted "First in Flight" slogan for their state have been urged to stick with the generally acknowledged claim that the Ohio-born Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the first to pull off powered flight in a heavier-than-air craft, in December 1903 in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

The controversy over who was really first to fly erupted in 2013 when Paul Jackson, the editor in chief of J_ane's All the World's Aircraft,_ wrote that German-born Whitehead and not the Wright Brothers was probably the first to fly a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in 1901, some two years before the Wright's feat. Jackson's conclusions were based in large part on the research of Australian pilot-historian John Brown, who has been engaged in a war of words and evidence with the Smithsonian over the controversy. The Smithsonian has as part of its agreement to display the Wright Flyer a clause that it will never recognize a different first to fly claim than the Wrights.

Proof of the claim was based in part on a grainy black-and-white photograph of an early aviation exhibition that appeared to show a Connecticut newspaper's long-lost lithograph printing of Whitehead's supposed first flight. Brown has amassed a great deal of other evidence, including a number of eyewitness accounts, though he has no photographic evidence in support of the Whitehead claim.

To say that the debate is complicated is a huge understatement. For many years the Smithsonian itself was a proponent of Samuel Pierpont Langley, whose Aerodrome craft suffered a controlled crash into the Potomac River from a raised platform.

After Connecticut's defection from the Wright Brothers' camp, a number of aviation historians, including the Smithsonian's own Tom Crouch, author of numerous works on the Wright's famous flight, refuted the Whitehead camp's claims. The National Aviation Heritage Alliance, based in Dayton, Ohio, the Wright Brothers' home town, is understandably also urging Connecticut lawmakers to drop their support of Whitehead and acknowledge the Wright brothers' – and by extension the state of North Carolina's and Ohio's – place in history as first to fly.

Backers of Whitehead and of Brazil-born Alberto Santos-Dumont, meanwhile, remain as nonplussed as ever that we're even still talking about the Wright Brothers.

Get exclusive online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.