Connecticut takes a side on first flight debate

June 12, 2013

The Smithsonian remains unmoved, but those who argue a 19th century immigrant to Connecticut is the true pioneer of powered flight have gained new allies in the state’s General Assembly.

Buried in a bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (below the unchanged designation of the ballroom polka as the official state polka), a paragraph requiring the governor to proclaim Powered Flight Day has been revised to replace the Wright Brothers with Gustave Whitehead. Word of this legislative attempt at historical white-out has traveled far, with coverage in the South China Morning Post, among many others.

While there is no surviving photograph of Whitehead’s No. 21 in flight, alleged to have flown about half a mile on Aug. 14, 1901, he has his share of advocates. John Brown has posted a detailed case for Whitehead as powered flight’s father that helped persuade the editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft to recognize Whitehead, a German-born engine-maker, as the true pioneer of powered flight in the centennial edition of the publication released in March.

Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, remains unconvinced. Crouch published in March a detailed response to Brown’s research, pronouncing Brown’s work “flawed,” and concluding that the case for Whitehead is “not proved.”

Connecticut lawmakers insist their bill makes an overdue correction.

"We want to correct something that should have been corrected long ago," state Rep. Larry Miller (R-Stratford), told The Associated Press. "All we're trying to do is correct history. There's nothing in it for us."

A message left with another proponent of the bill was not immediately returned, and a spokesman for the governor said the bill will be reviewed, though the governor has not yet decided if he will sign it.

Andrew King, executive director of the Connecticut Air and Space Center in Stratford, said the museum is staying out of this round. The museum, located in a factory complex that once produced the Chance Vought F4U Corsair (Connecticut’s official state aircraft, at least for now), houses a replica of Whitehead’s No. 21 that was built and flown, albeit with a modern engine, by museum board member Andrew Kosch, a teacher and longtime Whitehead proponent.

King said the museum has no official position on the legislation.

“I’m not going to get in the middle of the argument between the Smithsonian and John Brown,” King said. “We await (the) final word about that.”

That is not to say the museum is disinterested. King said the volunteers and staff are keen to see what comes of this latest push to usurp the Wright Brothers’ claim of powered primacy, and glad that the long-dormant debate has begun again. There have been many attempts since December 1903 to credit other inventors, Crouch noted, though the Whitehead case is the lone example still being talked about. King said the museum is glad people are talking.

“People are very excited in Connecticut about the whole thing,” King said. “It comes down to more than just local pride; it comes down to tourist dollars.”

North Carolina and Ohio may not have much to be concerned about in the absence of positive proof. The only image that has survived is a newspaper lithograph allegedly based on a photograph that has disappeared in the mists of time. Beyond that, there are words and witness accounts, all subject to debate.

Crouch, in an interview with CNN, stuck by his guns and scoffed at the legislative action.

“You can’t legislate history,” Crouch said.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.