In honor of Aviation Day, August 19, celebrating Orville Wright’s birthday, we bring you a piece that explores the stories around the first powered, controlled flight–and inspires us all to go to Dayton where the brothers lived.
Blame it on “alternative facts.” Or maybe it was “fake news” — the 1930s version, anyway. It turns out that the controversy over competing claims of who really was first to fly — the Wright brothers in 1903 or German-born immigrant inventor Gustave Whitehead two years earlier — can be traced to a, let’s call it “problematic,” article that appeared in the January 1935 issue of this magazine, back when it was known by its original name, Popular Aviation.The assertions put forth in the lengthy article and repeated for decades by Whitehead supporters seek to prove that the itinerant tinkerer and amateur aeronautical engineer, living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, piloted a heavier-than-air flying machine in 1901, well before the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. If not for the Popular Aviation article, however, no dispute likely would exist. There is scant evidence to back up the idea that Whitehead flew first, not to mention indications of clear exaggerations by supposed witnesses to his flights.The fantastical stories quietly faded into obscurity in the early 1900s, just as the Wrights’ stature was growing. Glenn Curtiss briefly resurrected the controversy in 1913 when he unsuccessfully used the Whitehead accounts in the “patent wars” with the Wrights in an attempt to prove that his adversaries weren’t the first to fly. A court found the evidence lacking, and there the matter was put to rest.
Until 1935, that is. The Popular Aviation article, titled “Did Whitehead Precede Wright in World’s First Powered Flight?” by Stella Randolph and Harvey Phillips, reignited the long-dormant debate. Based on tenuous — some might even say outlandish — evidence presented in the article, the Whitehead stories suddenly took on renewed life, attracting the attention of a Harvard aviation historian who studied the accounts, interviewed anyone he could find who knew anything about the supposed flights and, in the end, turned up no new conclusive facts.
Since then, the debate has bubbled to the surface from time to time, but always ended with the same more-or-less firm conclusion: Although Whitehead may have made some successful “hops” in his birdlike contraptions, it is highly unlikely he achieved any sustained powered flights before or after the Wrights.
As you may know, the Whitehead debate flared anew in 2013 when the editor-in-chief of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft wrote an article supportive of yet more supposed “evidence” backing the Whitehead claims, this time largely based on a single grainy black-and-white photograph that, upon closer examination, doesn’t show what conspiracy theorists think it does.
Ultimately, the publisher of Jane’s distanced itself from the assertions by its editor-in-chief, but by then the damage was done. Whitehead fever gripped, if not the world, at least Whitehead’s home state. Legislation introduced in Connecticut formally recognized the German-American inventor and the state as “First in Flight.” Suddenly, Ohio and North Carolina, the two states that historically battle it out for this distinction (with Ohio choosing “Birthplace of Aviation” and North Carolina claiming the “First in Flight” moniker on their respective license plates), saw a threat from a plucky Yankee upstart, and an illegitimate one at that.
Far from merely a time capsule for the early establishment of manned powered flight, Dayton, Ohio, has long sought to elevate its reputation above that as the hometown of Wilbur and Orville. Dayton’s founding fathers have always viewed the city as offering so much more, and for this reason Dayton never really embraced its unique place in aviation history the way it might have.
The Wrights’ story is an important part of the fabric of the city’s history, to be sure, but many Daytonians in the years after Wilbur and Orville passed on seemed more interested in presenting their story as merely one facet of a multifaceted panorama. The airplane, Daytonians like to point out, isn’t the only famous invention to emerge from inventive Dayton, which counts the cash register, pop-top can, automobile self-starter, ice cube tray and 150 others things as among those dreamed up in the city and Ohio’s surrounding Miami Valley.
To give a sense of just how little Dayton politicians understood the lasting historic significance of the Wright brothers at the time, consider that they approved the sale of the famous bicycle shop where Wilbur and Orville built the Flyer, along with the Wright family home on Hawthorn Street, to Henry Ford, who moved the buildings and all of their precious contents to Detroit in the 1930s. Today, all that remains of those sacred places are two vacant lots in a quiet part of town.
But Dayton is once again warming to the Wrights, and in a big way. Feeling the pressure to elevate the Wright brothers’ legacy to its rightful place, due in no small measure to the sudden threat by Whitehead backers in Connecticut, Dayton’s leaders now fully understand that the city, and indeed the entire surrounding area, is brimming with rich aviation history that represents a golden opportunity to tell the story of the rise of early aviation while attracting welcome tourism dollars to southwestern Ohio.
I jumped at the chance to visit Dayton and tour the area’s Aviation Heritage Trail when the National Aviation Heritage Alliance arranged a trip for journalists this past fall. The nonprofit group is a consortium of several aviation-minded entities in the area that receives support from the National Park Service.
Like many aviation enthusiasts, my interest in the Wright brothers has been rekindled by the Whitehead controversy as well as the terrific 2015 book The Wright Brothers by author and historian David McCullough. I was also drawn to Dayton by my personal desire to visit the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. One airplane in particular I was interested to see was the B-29 Bockscar. My grandfather’s cousin was a flight engineer on the airplane on its mission to drop the atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan, the event that ended World War II. After receiving an email confirming a three-day itinerary bursting with aviation adventures that included a tour of the Air Force museum, I packed my bags and filed a flight plan to Dayton.
I chose to fly into Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, where I was met by Tim Gaffney, communications director for the Aviation Heritage Alliance. With the Cirrus buttoned up, Tim wasted no time in introducing me and the four other journalists in attendance to the treasures to be found along the Aviation Heritage Trail. We piled into a van and drove about an hour north to Grimes Field in Urbana, home of the Champaign Aviation Museum. Here, volunteers are working hard on the meticulous restoration of the B-17 Champaign Lady as they seek to return the airplane to flying condition. We received a full tour of the bomber and spoke with the passionate volunteer restorers, but not before being given a breathtaking sunset tour of the area in the museum’s B-25 Champaign Gal, which is available for rides to the general public by visiting www.champaignaviationmuseum.org.
The next morning, we were up bright and early for an experience the average visitor to Dayton probably can’t score so easily: breakfast with Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. Over coffee, she threw cold water on the Whitehead controversy, and even dissed North Carolina. “Dayton,” she proclaimed, “is the birthplace of aviation, not North Carolina, not Connecticut. And we’re ready to tell the world our story.”
The rest of that day was spent on a whirlwind tour of historical sites not to be missed. First, it was a visit to Carillon Historical Park (daytonhistory.org), the home of Wright Cycle Co., a structure that looks much like the Wrights’ original bicycle shop and houses many legitimate artifacts, including the actual camera used to photograph the Flyer’s first flight on December 17, 1903; the sewing machine used to create its fabric wings; original Wright bicycles; and the original 1905 Wright Flyer III.
Next, we traveled to Woodland Cemetery, the final resting place of the Wright family and many other famous Daytonians. Set high on a hill, the cemetery offers stunning views overlooking downtown Dayton. While I understood the significance of the coins placed on Wilbur and Orville’s grave stones (it’s related to the story in Greek mythology of offering ferry payment to carry the souls of the deceased across the River Styx), the reason for the seashells also placed on the graves didn’t immediately come to mind.
“People collect shells from the beach at Kitty Hawk and leave them here as a sign of respect,” said Tony Sculimbrene, NAHA executive director and our able tour guide. An enormous oak tree, known as the Wright Oak, towers over the family plot, and I decided to pick up an acorn from the ground beneath the tree and place it in my pocket, a pilfered memento. One day, I’ll bring back a seashell from Kitty Hawk as repayment.
The next stop on our tour was a surprising one since, despite the fact that I consider myself fairly well-versed in Wright brothers history,
I had no idea the place still exists. We wheeled onto a side road that looked like the entrance to a construction site. In reality, this was the world’s first airplane factory, built in 1910, not far from the original Wright bicycle shop, when Wilbur and Orville entered production with the formation of the Wright Co. The factory, with its ornate white facade, produced 120 airplanes of 13 different models before General Motors bought the company and converted the factory to the production of automobile components. Our tour necessitated bringing flashlights inside the dilapidated, musty-smelling building, which has fallen into disuse following the bankruptcy of its most recent owner. The factory is closed to the public except for special tours once a month, but work is underway to restore it and reopen it to visitors as a unit of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
Next, we spent some time touring the National Park Service’s Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center on South Williams Street and then stopped by the Wright Brothers Store on West Third Street, near the original bicycle shop. The store produces modern interpretations of the original Van Cleve and St. Claire bicycles sold by the Wright brothers, as well as bespoke leather jackets, luggage, sunglasses and more, the proceeds of which help support the Wright Family Foundation and the upkeep of Hawthorn Hill, the home the Wrights built in Dayton’s upscale Oakwood neighborhood.
That evening included a memorable gathering as we headed over to Hawthorn Hill for a private tour given by Amanda Wright-Lane and Steve Wright, Orville and Wilbur’s grand-niece and grand-nephew. Steve brought along the latest Van Cleve and St. Claire bicycles for us to test in the driveway. We stood chatting and admiring the craftsmanship before heading inside for food and drinks. The tour itself was a special treat as Amanda and Steve told personal family stories about Uncle Orv and younger sister Katharine. Sadly, Wilbur’s untimely death at the age of 45 in 1912 meant he would never get the chance to enjoy the spoils of the brothers’ fortune that enabled them to build Hawthorn Hill.
Our three-day odyssey continued the next morning with an early departure from the hotel to visit Wright “B” Flyer Inc. (wright-b-flyer.org), a company at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport that offers rides in a replica Wright B Flyer, a pusher biplane designed by the Wrights in 1910. The open-air craft, powered by a 210 hp Lycoming IO-390 engine, is really more of a “look-alike” than replica, but it’s still not easy to fly, as I soon found out. Two of the other journalists who coaxed the machine down the runway and into the sky warned me afterward that it was a handful, just as I’m sure the original had to be. My turn in the pilot’s seat consisted of one low pass down the runway flown by an experienced Wright B pilot, followed by a quick taxi back to the end of the runway, where I got a turn at the controls. I’d been forewarned that this airplane was slow to react to control inputs, so on the first pass flown by the experienced pilot, I closely watched what he did. When it was my turn, I tried to mimic his exaggerated motions. The result wasn’t half bad — though I still agree, the Wright B look-alike is a bear to fly, and I wouldn’t want to venture far away from the runway.
Next, we headed over to the Air Force museum for my promised introduction to Bockscar and the hundreds of other incredible military relics within, including the chance to go inside several airplanes that have served as Air Force One (including the Boeing 707 that carried President John F. Kennedy’s body back from Dallas) and the Lockheed YF-12, the prototype precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird. Our tour also included a behind-the-scenes look at the B-17 Memphis Belle, now undergoing full restoration that will eventually culminate with the famous Allied bomber taking its place inside the museum.
Other stops on our Aviation Heritage Trail tour included the WACO museum, where the famed biplanes were born; Huffman Prairie, where the Wrights perfected the art of flying in the years after Kitty Hawk; the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta; and a visit to Wright State University, where we had the chance to see original Wright family diaries and even hold a rare photograph produced from the original glass plate used in the camera at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.
While obviously not all of what I experienced can be duplicated for the general public, if you’ve been considering a trip to Dayton to experience our shared aviation history, all I can say is go. The Air Force museum alone is worth the trip, and can take up multiple days of any visitor’s itinerary. Be sure also to stop by the excellent National Aviation Hall of Fame exhibit at the museum.
When you consider everything the area offers, it easily can become one of those rare experiences of a lifetime. Be sure to plan your visit accordingly. Three days wasn’t nearly enough to include everything I wanted to see, and I’m already planning my next trip back to the birthplace of aviation.