First in Flight—For Sure
“Have you ever been on an airplane?” The park ranger at Wright Brothers National Memorial stared back at a room of raised hands, myself included. The ranger then held up a monumental photo of Orville and Wilbur’s first flight. “Now look closely,” he said. “There’s a death in this photo.” The group strained their eyes looking for the ranger’s claim. “The death of impossible,” he said. Since December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers’ first flight led to the next impossible leap toward what we now know as modern aviation. However, in 2012, a newly discovered, blurred photograph of Gustave Whitehead challenged history.
In a museum attic, historian John Brown discovered a peculiar photograph of Whitehead allegedly showing that on August 14, 1901, he flew the “Condor” in Bridgeport, Connecticut, two years before the Wright brothers. It was in the attic that Brown also found newspaper clippings; some even stated that Whitehead might have flown as early as 1897. Soon after the photo surfaced and gained the attention of national media, this pre-Wright flight was then published in the 100th anniversary issue of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft in 2013. After the story was published, former Bridgeport, Conn. mayor Bill Finch commented, “Our license plate should say ‘firster in flight.’”
We put together the following timeline to take a look at how these events unfolded and how the Wright Brothers upheld their title as aviation pioneers.
August 14, 1901—Gustave Whitehead allegedly flew the “Condor” in Bridgeport, Conn.
December 17, 1903—Orville Wright took what many consider to be the first controlled, powered flight.
1912—Wilbur Wright dies of typhoid fever.
1914—The Smithsonian named their secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley, the first to build a flying machine.
1928–1948—Because of the Smithsonian naming Langley as first, Orville had the 1903 Flyer sent to London’s Science Museum, where it remained until his death in 1948.
1948—The 1903 Flyer was relocated to the Smithsonian contingent upon a contract stating that the museum could not dispute “first in flight” or first to build a flying machine, or the Flyer would be removed.
2003—To settle the scuffle concerning which state could claim the brothers’ successes, Dayton, Ohio, the hometown of the Wright brothers, wins the license plate title of “Birthplace of Aviation,” while North Carolina keeps “First in Flight” on theirs.
“This [Ohio] is where their genius produced a practical airplane,” Dawne Dewey, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Wright State University Libraries, tells us. “Having said that, North Carolina provided the brothers with the wind and sand they needed to test their invention.”
2012—North Carolina and Ohio joined hands in opposition when historian John Brown discovered a photo allegedly showing that on August 14, 1901, Gustave Whitehead flew the “Condor” in Bridgeport, Conn., two years before the Wright brothers.
2013—The pre-Wright flight was published in the 100th anniversary issue of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft in 2013, which led to Connecticut reserving a “Gustave Whitehead Day” and “Powered Flight Day” in Whitehead’s honor.
It didn’t take long for the Whitehead findings to be debunked, however. Just four months later after the article was published in Jane’s, it was discovered that the photo was not Whitehead and his “Condor,” but it was “The California,” a John J. Montgomery glider flown in 1905.
When the contract between the Smithsonian and Wright heirs was brought up, they did not deny its existence, but they further underlined that they would not allow the contract to prevent them from acknowledging historical fact—and Whitehead’s claim is no such thing.
2015—Information Handling Services (IHS) owner and publisher of Jane’s released a public statement that the article released in 2013 shortly after Brown’s discovery was solely based off of editor Paul Jackson’s opinion. It reads: “IHS makes no argument about the success of the Wright brothers, who hold their rightful place in history as aviation pioneers and heroes.”
February 16, 2016— A proposal for the Wright flyer to be added to Ohio’s state seal was unanimously cleared by the House State Government Committee, further enforcing their place as aviation pioneers.
It seems that every year, there is a new piece added to the claim for first. But according to Darrell Collins, historian of the Wright Brothers National Memorial for nearly 30 years, these disputes are neither accurate nor original propositions. “The story of the Wright brothers and their invention of the airplane have no rivalry in aviation,” he tells us. “This is another tall tale to once again discredit the Wright brothers and their achievements.”