(Wall Street Journal) Sen. McLachlan: First Flight History was Made in Connecticut

June 1, 2013

Connecticut Lawmakers Want to Claim First Flight for Fairfield County Venture
Some Say Gustave Whitehead Beat the Wright Brothers to the Sky
Article as it appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 31, 2013

The Smithsonian has long maintained that the Wright Brothers were the first to fly an airplane. Some Connecticut lawmakers say not so fast.

Connecticut state legislators want to recognize Gustave Whitehead, a German man who claimed to fly an early airplane in Fairfield County in 1901, as the first person to achieve human flight despite the Smithsonian’s long-held position. The Wright Brothers made their famous first flight in 1903 in North Carolina.

A state legislative bill that bestows first flight recognition on Mr. Whitehead passed the state House of Representatives Thursday and now awaits action in the Senate.

“It’s pretty exciting that Connecticut history is finally surfacing as accurate history,” said state Sen. Michael McLachlan.
Supporters of Mr. Whitehead’s claims have made their case for years, but the debate resurfaced recently thanks to the research by John Brown, an Australian-born, part-time aviation historian who currently lives in Bavaria, Germany.

Mr. Brown recently found press accounts on Mr. White’s claims of flight in 1901. He also found a photo of what Mr. Brown says is Mr. Whitehead’s plane in flight.

Officials from the Smithsonian disagreed with his interpretation. “From my point of view, it does not look like a machine in flight,” wrote Tom Crouch of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in response to Mr. Brown’s research.

Others were persuaded. In March, the British aviation publication “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft” declared that Mr. Whitehead did indeed beat the Wright Brothers after it reviewed Mr. Whitehead’s research.

If Connecticut recognizes Mr. Whitehead with first in flight status, “it would be an important step,” Mr. Brown said in a phone interview. “The most important step would be to put pressure on the Smithsonian to examine the case of Whitehead.”

Alison Mitchell, a spokeswoman with the Smithsonian Institution, said in an email that the museum has extensively researched Mr. Whitehead’s claims over several decades.

“None of the material Mr. Brown has presented is new—it has all been thoroughly researched by members of our staff and other aviation historians,” she said. “To date, there is no evidence to suggest anyone other than Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to achieve powered flight.”

Supporters of Mr. Whitehead, like Mr. McLachlan, remained unconvinced. “I think this is absolutely true,” he said.