In a startling announcement a few days ago, Jane's All the World's Aircraft has named an August 1901 flight by Connecticut aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead as the first successful powered flight in history, beating the Wright brothers' first flight by more than two years. Jane's, which calls itself the world's foremost authority on aviation history, with great authority, has traditionally backed the Wright Brothers as first in flight. Now they say the evidence for Whitehead's flight is strong enough for the publication to reverse course and recognize it as the first successful powered flight.
Jane's Editor Paul Jackson describes what happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901.
"It was in the summer of 1901 that Whitehead flew his airplane, which he called the Condor. In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor's wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated." The length of flight and altitude reached make the Wright's first powered foray pale in comparison.
Jackson credits the long work of aviation researcher John Brown for much of the recently uncovered evidence that Whitehead's flight was indeed number one. Brown's website, www.gustave-whitehead.com, is packed with evidence.
The evidence that Jane's presents is compelling. There are multiple photographs, overwhelming evidence of Whitehead's preparation for the first flight — Condor was the 21st airplane he built — eyewitnesses, dozens of newspaper accounts of the story and ample evidence not only of an engine sufficient for the flight but one whose basic design was used on many subsequent successful airplanes by other designers, including Glenn Curtiss. Moreover, Whitehead made another successful powered flight in an airplane with three-axis controls in 1902, more than a year before the Wright brothers' first flight.
The decision by Jane's is sure to fuel the most controversial discussion in aviation, perhaps ever, as aviation enthusiasts take sides, either with the Wright Brothers, who made history on the North Carolina dunes in December 1903, or Whitehead, who, the evidence now seems to indicate, did the same two-and-a-half years earlier on the quiet streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Look for more on this story, unfolding 112 years after the fact, in the coming days and weeks in Flying and on flyingmag.com.