First in Flight? Not Wright Brothers, Says Connecticut [New York Times]

April 17, 2015

Article as it appeared in the New York Times

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Connecticut lawmakers are wrestling with difficult issues — a budget deficit, assisted suicide, judicial reform.

But this legislative session, and for the previous two, one topic has enjoyed bipartisan support: Gustave Whitehead.

In 2013, a well-regarded aviation publication surprised historians by declaring that Mr. Whitehead, a Bridgeport resident, had flown two years before Orville and Wilbur Wright skimmed the dunes of Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina in 1903.

“Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied,” read the headline in the publication, IHS Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. “Whitehead has been shabbily treated by history,” the publication said.

Mr. Whitehead, a German immigrant, flew his own aircraft above Bridgeport and nearby Fairfield on Aug. 14, 1901, climbing 50 feet into the air and traveling more than a mile, according to the article, which was written by Paul Jackson, the editor of Jane’s.

Connecticut jumped at the chance to claim first-in-flight status, to the consternation of Ohio and North Carolina. The two states had long squabbled over which could claim the Wright brothers, who lived in Dayton but made their historic flight near Kitty Hawk.

Within months, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, had signed a measure changing the honorees of a state holiday called Powered Flight Day from the Wright brothers to Mr. Whitehead. Last spring, lawmakers passed a resolution that formally recognized Connecticut as first in flight. Two more measures honoring Mr. Whitehead, introduced this year by State Senator Kevin Kelly, a Republican, are pending. One calls for Powered Flight Day to be held on Aug. 14. The other designates Mr. Whitehead’s contraption as the state’s pioneering aircraft.

Not all agree with the rewriting of history. When the claim regarding Mr. Whitehead first surfaced, “Birthplace of Aviation” Ohio and “First in Flight” North Carolina joined forces against Connecticut, denouncing its law and, at a news conference in 2013, affirming the Wright brothers as modern aviation’s true pioneers.

“This is the first time North Carolina and Ohio have ever agreed on anything regarding the origin of flight,” State Representative Rick Perales of Ohio, a Republican, said in a recent telephone interview.

State Senator Bill Cook of North Carolina announced his solidarity with Mr. Perales. “The evidence is clear,” Mr. Cook, a Republican, said on his website. “There is no doubt about who performed the first powered flight.”

Mr. Whitehead has long had his supporters, as have others who claimed to precede the Wrights, and researchers have studied the Whitehead claim since at least the 1930s. In the mid-1980s, Connecticut officials asked the Smithsonian Institution, which owns the Wright brothers’ plane, to hold a public hearing on the matter. No hearing was held.

Determined to prove that Mr. Whitehead’s plane could fly, a group led by a Connecticut teacher, Andy Kosch, built a replica and successfully flew it at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford in 1986, prompting a “60 Minutes” segment titled “Wright Is Wrong?”

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Senator Kelly of Connecticut said the report by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft had spurred the recent surge of bills related to Mr. Whitehead, and that he had introduced his measures to correct history.

Mr. Perales said he initially tried to ignore Connecticut’s claims. For the most part, aviation historians continue to recognize the Wright brothers’ primacy, noting that the Whitehead claim is less documented and lacks clear photographic evidence.

But the Wright brothers’ legacy is central to Ohio’s identity. “Everywhere you go there’s a Wright Brothers Avenue, a Wright Brothers Boulevard,” Mr. Perales said. “It’s part of who we are.”

So he introduced his own resolution this year.

The measure asks Ohio lawmakers to repudiate the Connecticut claim. “Whereas the states of Ohio and North Carolina share and cherish the legacy of the Wright brothers,” it reads, “now therefore be it resolved, that Gustave Whitehead did not fly a powered, heavier than air machine of his own design on August 14, 1901, or on any other date.”

The resolution, which was unanimously approved by a legislative transportation committee on Tuesday, also encourages people everywhere to visit Wright-related landmarks in Ohio and North Carolina. An early draft invited Connecticut to learn the truth, Mr. Perales said, adding that it was deleted because it was “a bit inflammatory.”

North Carolina ratified its own resolution on the matter 30 years ago, noting that Bridgeport was famous for “another great showman, promoter and circus man, P.T. Barnum, who said, ‘There’s a sucker born every minute.’ ”

The Wrights, the North Carolina bill said, had been recognized by the nation’s leaders, scholars, museums and “bright schoolchildren everywhere” as the first to fly.

That is indeed what Paulette Dobson, 26, learned in school. So when Ms. Dobson, a Bridgeport native, first saw a fountain downtown bearing the inscription “FIRST IN FLIGHT/Gustave Whitehead/Bridgeport, Connecticut,” she did a double take.

“I was like, ‘Really?’ I thought the Wright brothers were the first to fly,” she said. But the idea intrigued her, and she has followed the story.

Shortly after the Jane’s article appeared, the Smithsonian’s senior aviation curator, Tom Crouch, issued a statement saying the Whitehead evidence did not withstand scrutiny.

The Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer is exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. The Smithsonian has called it one of its most significant items, and firmly endorses the Wrights as being first in the air.

“It’s not really the Wright brothers versus Gustave Whitehead,” Mr. Crouch said in a telephone interview. “It’s the question of whether Whitehead got off the ground before the Wright brothers did. I don’t think he did.”

Mr. Whitehead’s supporters say the Smithsonian’s opinion is colored by politics, and that its curators are bound by a contract that requires them to deny that anyone flew before the Wrights. Smithsonian representatives signed the contract in 1948 when the Wright estate agreed to sell the brothers’ flyer to the museum for a dollar.

For decades after the Wrights’ flight, the Smithsonian contended that its own former secretary, Samuel Langley, had succeeded before they did. Not until 1942 did the Smithsonian formally apologize to the brothers, according to a New York Times article that year with the headline “An Air Quarrel Ended.”

That feud, and not reports about Mr. Whitehead, is why the Wrights’ lawyers insisted on such a stringent contract with the Smithsonian, Mr. Crouch said.

As for Mr. Whitehead, an IHS Jane’s spokesman said in an emailed statement this month that the journal’s article “was intended to stimulate discussion about first in flight,” and “reflected Mr. Jackson’s opinion on the issue and not that of IHS Jane’s.” The publication said Mr. Jackson was unavailable to comment.

Mr. Malloy’s office declined to comment on legislation connected to Mr. Whitehead, but confirmed that on Aug. 14, Connecticut will celebrate Powered Flight Day in his honor.

Correction: April 17, 2015
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the plane that aviation enthusiasts believe Gustave Whitehead flew in 1901. It was Plane No. 21, not 22.