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First-Flight Photo

First, allow me to congratulate you on the January issue, which contained a very thoughtful editorial and a very nice review of my book The Bishop’s Boys, as a classic. I do want to take issue with Joe Bullmer’s article on the first-flight photo. He argues that the famous photo does not depict a real flight at all. The over-the-ground distance of Orville’s first attempt, he notes, was 120 feet in 12 seconds, only 15 feet farther than Wilbur’s abortive first attempt from the lower slopes of Kill Devil Hill on December 14. Neither of them achieved a distance over the ground of 300 feet, he points out, which the Wrights later suggested was the point after which an aviator has achieved sustained flight, and “has really done something.”

But look a little closer. On December 14, Wilbur covered 105 feet in only 3.5 seconds, while Orville was in the air for 12 seconds. Wilbur took off into a wind of just 4 to 8 mph on the 14th. The combination of a very light wind and the launch rail laid on a downhill slope resulted in the airplane rushing into the air so fast that Orville could not keep up with it. Because of the low wind speed, there was almost no difference between the distance measured over the ground and the distance flown through the air.

On December 17, on the other hand, Orville took off from the sand flats near their camp and flew into a headwind gusting from 24 to 27 mph. The speed of the machine over the ground was now so low that Wilbur, as seen in the famous photo, had no trouble keeping up. This time, while the distance over the ground was only 120 feet, the true distance flown into that headwind was calculated at 540 feet, well beyond 300 feet. Given the distance flown through the air and the evidence provided in the photo of Orville’s being in control of the craft, the photo is just what it seems to be, an astounding image of the world’s first airplane at the outset of its first flight.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

Smithsonian Institution

Joe Bullmer responds: My point in the article was that the fourth flight of 854 feet on December 17, 1903, was truly the first sustained, controlled, powered flight by the Wrights according to their own criterion. When Wilbur wrote Octave Chanute referring to Santos Dumont’s early flights, saying, “If he has gone more than 300 feet, he has really done something; less than this is nothing,” he made no stipulation about wind. The argument Tom makes is the same one Orville made in Flying magazine after Wilbur’s death. I welcome Tom’s comment about the December 14 flight, but maintain that, according to the Wrights’ own records and criterion, only the last one on the 17th demonstrated true sustained, controlled flight.

Greenland Saga

“Seven Down in Greenland,” by Stephan Wilkinson in the November 2013 issue, is a superficial version, with several errors, of the six-month-long epic rescue saga that took place on the Greenland ice cap from November 5, 1942, to May 8, 1943. The author gleaned most of his information from my article, which was published in 2011 by the U.S. Coast Guard historian’s office, titled “The Greenland Ice Cap Rescue of B-17 PN9E.” The facts in my article are from multiple USAAF and USCG records, and written narratives by, and my interviews of, participants.

Captain Donald M. Taub

U.S. Coast Guard (ret.)

Huntington Beach, Calif.

Captain Taub’s article, cited in the further reading notes at the end of Wilkinson’s article, is available at –Ed.

Whitehead Controversy

There is an error in your otherwise superb editorial for January 2014. I am the person, not Nick Engler, who proved that the photo “discovered” by John Brown supposedly showing Whitehead in flight in 1901 was actually of a John J. Montgomery glider in 1905. After I contacted Nick and shared my proof of Brown’s grievously mistaken “forensic photo analysis” (detailed in an article posted on my website on July 19), he offered to produce 3D renderings of the Montgomery glider photo for my Whitehead debunking website, which he did in short order and which I then added to my article. See

Carroll Gray

Encino, Calif.

Thanks for the correction. We should also note that the photo accompanying the January editorial does not show Whitehead’s No. 22 airplane, as indicated in the caption, but rather his No. 21, in which he allegedly made his 1901 flight. –Ed.

Ultimate Racers

The article on the Gee Bee racers (“Extremes,” January) really hit home. In the early 1930s some of the Granville brothers used to come to our farm for hunting, and I got to sit in one of their planes at the Springfield airport. After that I really wanted to be a pilot. I was accepted into the Aviation Cadet program in 1942, ending with a 35-mission tour as a B-24 pilot in the Eighth Air Force. The orders promoting me (and hundreds of others) to first lieutenant were signed by General Jimmy Doolittle, then commanding officer of the Eighth Air Force in England.

A good friend of mine who knew Bob Granville’s widow was instrumental in getting the plans for the construction of the reproduction now at the New England Air Museum. One of her conditions was that they not build a flyable replica.

George Washburn, President

44th Bomb Group Veterans Assn.

Tampa, Fla.

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