Aviation History: November ’96 From The Editor

9/23/1996 • Aviation History Archives

Our article questioning whether the Wright brothers had been beaten to powered, controlled flight by Gustave Whitehead (Aviation History, March 1996) brought several letters. Some readers complimented us for considering the possibility that the Wrights may not have been first. Others condemned us for even thinking about it. We left it in the March editorial with a tongue-in-cheek reminder to readers to check their attics for long-lost photographs of Whitehead in flight that would prove he was first.

Well, no such photos have yet been found, but new evidence about another of our aviation milestones has emerged. Not too long after our Whitehead article was published, the media began to print stories revisiting another aviation first–the claim by U.S. Navy Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the famous polar explorer, that he was the first to have flown over the North Pole on May 9, 1926, when he and pilot Floyd Bennett went north in a Fokker trimotor. Although Byrd’s claim went into the history books, skepticism about its authenticity has surfaced from time to time.

A long-lost Byrd diary recently was found in a mislabeled box of memorabilia stashed away in the Byrd archives. According to a historical analyst who studied the document, Byrd turned back 40 miles before reaching the pole because of fears that an ailing engine might bring the flight to a premature conclusion. This would mean that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who flew over the North Pole three days after Byrd’s attempt, would replace Byrd in the history books. Although Amundsen’s dirigible covered the ground much more slowly than Byrd’s plane, his meticulous documentation has never been questioned.

So, especially you readers in Connecticut, keep checking those attics and archives. Maybe someone, someday, will unearth long-lost photographs of Gustave Whitehead in flight–two years before the Wright brothers.

Good News for the NASM
The Smithsonian Institution made an excellent decision when Donald D. Engen was named as new director of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) a few months ago. We especially applaud this choice because Engen was a founding member of the Aviation History editorial advisory board and has been a welcome source of advice and guidance ever since. A retired vice admiral in the U.S. Navy, test pilot, aviation industry executive, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Authority, and, more recently, holder of the NASM’s Dewitt C. Ramsey Chair for Naval Aviation, Engen knows what course the museum should follow, and we are confident he has what it takes to steer it there.

Asked what his initial plans were, Engen said: "You will see me placing great emphasis on the collection, and on making it accessible for viewing by all. And, to make it possible to display more of our artifacts, I am dedicated to making the NASM’s annex facility at Washington-Dulles International Airport happen. I will spend a lot of energy on seeing that project through." Where will he start? With the employees, he said. Engen will build a good working relationship with his team as the first order of business.

The stewardship of our most cherished national aeronautical and space collection is back in good hands. Welcome aboard, Admiral!

… and Good News About the NASM
This year marks a double anniversary for "the nation’s attic." The Smithsonian Institution is celebrating the 150th year since the will of English scientist James Smithson established it for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." This year also marks the 20th anniversary of one of its "younger" facilities, the NASM.

Among the special lectures and other celebratory events being presented throughout its 20th year, the NASM staff has produced a new IMAX film, Cosmic Voyage, and new Einstein Planetarium programs about the solar system and man’s fascination with the night sky. Also, there is a new interactive gallery, "How Things Fly," that explores the scientific principles that make aviation possible–and allows visitors to do some of the "flying." Straight stuff about aviation and space. Things are looking up.

Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History