Wright or Wrong?
Everyone knows the story: On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted the Flyer along a launch rail and into the air at Kitty Hawk, N.C., while brother Wilbur watched and a camera captured the historic moment (story, P. 56). With Orville’s flight, the first of four that day, the Wright brothers ushered in the age of the airplane.
Or did they? The question of who made the first manned, powered, controlled flight has been debated ever since that momentous day 110 years ago. Recently the debate gained new traction when the respected British aviation publication Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft declared in the foreword to its 100th anniversary edition that, based on new evidence, it now believed Connecticut aviation experimenter Gustave Whitehead beat the Wrights into the air by two years. That new evidence—an analysis of a photo within a photo taken at the 1906 Exhibition of Aeronautical Apparatus in New York City—was presented by Australian researcher John Brown on his website gustave-whitehead.com.
Jane’s decision touched off a firestorm, with Wright defenders on one side trotting out familiar arguments and Whitehead proponents on the other lining up to say “I told you so.” Among the former camp, National Air and Space Museum senior curator Tom Crouch, author of a Wright biography (review, P. 63), presented a measured rebuttal on the smithsonianmag.com blog on March 18. In it he methodically deconstructed Whitehead’s claims, which are based primarily on the inventor’s own statements and those of witnesses to his alleged flight of August 14, 1901, in his No. 21 monoplane, as reported in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald four days later. It’s worth noting for context that the Herald report appeared on page 5—a slot often reserved for sensational “amazing but true” stories—under a heading showing four witches flying on broomsticks. Previous page 5 articles had included “The Dog Man of Windham,” about a Bigfoot-like creature spotted in Connecticut’s woods, and the following week the page carried “The Woodbury Kleptomania,” about a woman who stole rare plants and chickens.
Witches and Bigfoot and chickens aside, as Crouch noted in his blog entry: “Perhaps the strongest argument against the Whitehead claims is…that not one of the powered machines that he built after 1902 ever left the ground. Nor did any of those machines resemble the aircraft that he claimed to have flown between 1901 to 1902. Why did he not follow up his early success?” Contrast this with the Wrights’ well-documented progression from gliders, to prototype Flyer, to production airplanes.
The debate teetered toward the absurd in June when the Connecticut legislature passed and Governor Dannel Malloy signed into law a bill affirming that “Powered Flight Day is in honor of the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead, rather than the Wright brothers,” proving it’s never a good idea to legislate history. (In other vital matters, the same bill established “the Ballroom Polka as the state polka.”) Most recently, however, Wright brothers expert Nick Engler brought the debate back to earth when he performed a detailed digital analysis of the blurry photo that set off the controversy, and made a convincing case that it actually shows a glider built by John J. Montgomery.
All of this and more is detailed in “The Case For Gustave Whitehead” on wright-brothers.org. Of course, Aviation History has trod much of this ground before, going as far back as our March 1996 article about Whitehead, “First-Flight Controversy” (available on our website), which presented the inventor’s side of the argument. Then as now, we urge readers to examine the evidence and decide for themselves who deserves the first-flight crown.