Mocked By Gifts From Wright Brothers Historians, State Celebrates Gustave Whitehead

August 19, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

The Gustave Whitehead first-flight movement is apparently striking fear in the heart its enemy: the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

Gustave Whitehead is, or is not, the man who conquered gravity with the first powered airplane flight exactly 114 years ago on Aug. 14, 1901. Connecticut, in some quarters, celebrates this claimed achievement even though Orville and Wilbur Wright remain widely credited with accomplishing the feat two years later in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Now, in a gesture mocking Connecticut’s recognition of Whitehead, the aviation heritage group — in the Wright Brothers’ hometown of Dayton — is donating three history books to the Connecticut State Library.

“From recent legislation and statements by Connecticut legislators — including remarks aimed specifically at NAHA — we’ve seen a need for more and better knowledge about aviation history among Connecticut’s lawmakers,” Frank Winslow, chairman of the alliance, said in a written release Thursday.

Two years ago, the state officially declared Whitehead, a Connecticut resident, the first to fly a powered aircraft. State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, took further action in January of this year when he introduced a bill designating Aug. 14 as Gustave Whitehead Day, although the bill died.

The alliance called out Kelly specifically for his “difficulty in understanding aviation history” and suggested the lack of material in the state’s library must have been a contributing factor.

It is donating three books — “The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright,” by Tom D. Crouch; “Visions of a Flying Machine: The Wright Brothers and the Process of Invention,” by Peter Jakab; and “The Wright Brothers,” by David McCullough — supposedly to improve the library’s collection.

Not to be outflanked, Kelly turned the gesture around with a perfectly executed chandelle maneuver — in flying, that’s a climbing, 180-degree turn.

“These donations are appreciated and they will only help us here in Connecticut as we continue to shine a spotlight on a pioneering aviation event that took place in our state 114 years ago,” Kelly said in a written statement. “So, we thank Ohio for the publicity, and we hope public interest in this historic event will continue to soar.”

The Bridgeport Bluefish are doubling-down on the state’s embrace of Whitehead. The independent league baseball team will celebrate his achievements at the Ballpark at Harbor Yard on Friday night.

Commemorative jerseys will feature Whitehead’s aircraft designs as well as the phrase “First in Flight” on the back. A replica of the vehicle will be on display at the field. And, the Connectocut Post reported, the team will welcome owners of drones to fly their remote machines before the game.

The Whitehead movement gained steam in March 2013 when respected aviation publication Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft supported the accounts of Whitehead’s flight in an article written by editor-in-chief Paul Jackson. The book’s publisher, IHS, said the piece was Jackson’s opinion alone and was meant to spark discussion, but declined to say definitively that the Wright brothers were first in the skies.

McCullough, the celebrated historian, debunks the Whitehead claim in his book, which was published earlier this year.

Kelly deployed diplomacy in his spurning of the Ohion gift.

“Gustave Whitehead successfully flew his Model 21 aircraft on Aug. 14, 1901 in Connecticut,” he said. “Ohio is a great state, and there’s no question that the Wright brothers will retain their place in aviation history. They just weren’t first in flight.”