Who flew first?

The Wright answer undergoes a challenge

March 20, 2013

who flew first

An eminent aviation publication has injected new life into an old assertion that the Wright brothers did it best, but Gustave Whitehead did it first, in the matter of who accomplished the first controlled flight in a powered aircraft.

Evidence including a newspaper account written by an eyewitness has never been absolutely discredited that Whitehead, a German émigré to the United States who was trained as a builder of engines, flew his aircraft No. 21, named Condor in Fairfield, Conn., on Aug. 14, 1901, say his advocates.

That would mean that Whitehead’s flying, purportedly photographed by the witnessing newspaper editor, occurred more than two years before the Wright brothers’ universally acclaimed first flight at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.

And when Whitehead flew that day—from a field near what is now a municipal skateboard park, as described by Fairfield’s present newspaper—he is said to have done so not once, but twice.

All that remains now is for the Whitehead faction to prove it to a world that may be unwilling to abandon the story of aviation’s creation.

This isn’t the first time around the patch for the Whitehead-versus-Wrights controversy. But the first-flight-in-Fairfield formulation gained gravitas when Paul Jackson, editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft called attention to recent research in a foreword published at the hundredth edition of All The World’s Aircraft.

Jackson addressed “misconceptions” that had come to be accepted as fact—including among them the first flight narrative, which, he noted, predated the work of Frederick Jane, his publication’s founder, to record developments in aviation.

“I’m an aviation historian as well, and I believe in getting history right, even if it’s a hundred years late,” Jackson said in a phone interview.

Jackson believes that recognition of Whitehead’s flying, despite widespread contemporary news coverage turned up by the recent research, was hindered by his reliance on what was already regarded as “dead-end technology” in the worldwide race then in progress to achieve powered flight. (It was also disparaged from a distance and over time by Orville Wright.).

“The Wrights’ reputation is very firmly entrenched, and to a very great extent correctly so,” Jackson said.”Whatever Whitehead did before them, we have to thank the Wrights for aviation as it progressed in the Twentieth Century.”

But isn’t there a photograph?

Well, that’s a problem. A lithograph based on a flawed photo illustrated the Aug. 18, 1901, newspaper article on Whitehead’s flying. But the original, described as blurry, perhaps as a result of the Condor’s motion and dusky lighting conditions, is not available.

There’s another proof-defying complication: No one knows what became of the airplane itself.

“That is a great shame because we have the original Wright brothers aircraft in the Smithsonian, and that adds weight to what the Wrights have claimed to have done,” Jackson said.

In his foreword published March 8, Jackson summarized the case for Whitehead and directed readers to an online trove of source material gathered, interpreted, and presented by Australian aviation historian John Brown at the website Gustave Whitehead – Aviation Pioneer.

Tantalizingly, the site includes a panoramic photograph of a 1906 exhibition in New York, in which a copy of the Fairfield first flight photo is said to be seen on a wall in the background, based on an enlargement of the section. The claim is discounted by the Smithsonian Institution.

Whitehead’s own copy of the flight photo was said to have been destroyed in a fire in his workshop. Whitehead’s advocates remain beguiled by the notion that another might turn up somewhere—perhaps among a dusty stack of framed art in an old book store or in a New England antique shop.

“Stranger things have happened,” allows Jackson. “These things do emerge from time to time.”

‘A good 90-pecent chance’

who flew first Replica of the Condor

Like everyone else, Andrew King was “born and raised on, ‘The Wright brothers flew first.’” After he came to Connecticut to serve as director of the Connecticut Air and Space Center in Stratford, and heard all the Whitehead talk, he started looking over the evidence.

“There’s a good 90-percent chance that it actually happened,” King said, noting that he was “speaking as a museum professional.”

King offers an offbeat theory—a speculation based on hindsight, he readily notes—that Whitehead’s flights may have been considered humdrum, not big news as widely assumed today. Hot air balloons had already been around for 100 years. Aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal had been flying gliders for many years. Would a glider with an engine and propellers mounted on it have seemed like anything more than “an oddity”?

King wonders.

“Everybody was trying to fly,” he said.

Jackson, of Jane’s, says his job “is to assess the potential of aircraft.” He looked at the Whitehead effort from an engineer’s point of view, and pronounced it credible. Whitehead was a skilled engine designer, capable of overcoming drawbacks of his aircraft’s wing with the 20-horsepower motor to drive the propellers and a 10-hp motor to drive the wheels of the Condor.

“It was most certainly capable of flight,” Jackson said.

A replica flies

Andy Kosch, a science teacher at Platt Technical High School in Milford, Conn., and hang glider pilot, also wondered if Whitehead’s craft—which he said resembled some of the machines Kosch had flown—was flyable.

He assembled a team, built a replica, and got his answer after a year and a half’s work.

“This thing leaped off the ground. It scared the hell out of me,” he said.

A sponsor put up the funds for the project and the team went to work, using blueprints, and materials including sitka spruce, bamboo for ribs, and silk for the wings. They used a modern engine, rather than try to build a Whitehead motor. The main idea was to prove the airframe, Kosch said.

On Dec. 7, 1986, Kosch flew his aircraft, which would become known as No. 21A, at Bridgeport, Conn.’s Sikorsky Memorial Airport. Kosch eventually flew the craft about 20 times, achieving a best distance of 330 feet.

His conclusion: “I’m sure that the guy flew.”

Kosch, now 73, confides that he wonders if, after being “sucked in” to the adventure, he thinks about Whitehead a bit too much. Like other devotees, he hasn’t given up on the idea that a key piece of evidence might surface.

“I think that photo is somewhere, to tell you the truth. I think someone has it stashed and hidden away,” he said.

‘A smile and a handshake’

Then he adds, “I’m not looking for a fight with the Smithsonian. But the guy ought to get a little bit of credit.”

“It’s all hearsay until you have it in your hand,” said King, of the Connecticut Air and Space Center, also emphasizing that the quest for clarification is sporting, not a denigration of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

In his many conversations with skeptics, there has been “a lot of good-natured back-and-forth,” he said. “But it always ended with a smile and a handshake.”

The Smithsonian Institution has dismissed accounts of Whitehead’s flight, and did so again as the new wave of attention to Whitehead washed over the news media.

To the Whitehead camp’s contention that a “legally binding document” between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian precludes acknowledgement of competing claims, historian Tom Couch of the National Air and Space Museum responded on March 15.

“I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer,” he wrote.

Jackson believes that crediting Whitehead with a first flight would cause “only slight bruising” to the Wrights’ reputation, considering the subsequent course of events. He regrets that a “giant non-sequitur” seems to equate the Wrights’ success with the notion that they had to have been first, and that reluctance to part with the established telling might continue to subdue acceptance of Whitehead.

Might that change as dogged information-age researchers turn up new material, buying Whitehead more time for vindication?

“It’s a funny old world,” Jackson said. “I must say I’m absolutely staggered by the response that has come in. I wish people would take half as seriously what I say about modern aircraft.”

Jackson is pleased at having helped John Brown’s efforts to “right an injustice,” but the editor said his attention will now turn from the matter of Whitehead’s flying.

“I have given my readers the historical article I promised on the occasion of the 100th edition of All The World’s Aircraft,” he said.

Wright challengers

Fans of Gustave Whitehead aren’t the only ones claiming that someone other than Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight.

AOPA Senior Vice President of the Center to Advance the Pilot Community Adam Smith is also an aviation historian who has studied claims of the first powered flight for years. Smith shares his thoughts on the controversy stirred up by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and provides a list of other pilots researchers claim beat the Wright brothers.

“At least two people likely got a powered aircraft off the ground before the Wright Brothers—Clement Ader in 1890 and Karl Jatho in 1903. But these were short hops and not controlled, sustained flight,” Smith writes.

So, other than Whitehead, who tops the list of claims to the first powered flight? According to Smith’s research:

Felix Du Temple, France, 1874;
Alexander Mozhaiski, Russia, 1884;
Clement Ader, France, 1890, 1897;
Hiram Maxim, England, 1894;
Augustus Herring, Michigan, 1898;
Rev. Burrell Cannon, Texas, 1902;
Richard Pearse, New Zealand, 1902-1903;
James Preston Watson, Scotland, 1902-1903;
Karl Jatho, Germany, 1903.

“I don't believe Gustave Whitehead ever flew, or even hopped, a powered aircraft before the Wright Brothers. Others will disagree, as is their right, but that's my judgment as a trained historian and having spent a lot of time in libraries and archives looking at the original source material. All key aspects of the Whitehead story have verisimilitude issues,” Smith writes.

“I hope we can all agree that if anyone did get off the ground before the Wright Brothers, it is a footnote in history, not a major chapter. Without question, Wilbur and Orville were the ones that figured out the science, applied it, and gave the gift of powered, controlled flight to the world. I would especially emphasize the word ‘controlled.’ From 1899 to 1905 the Wrights perfected a comprehensive method of aircraft control that, fundamentally, can still be seen in the vast majority of aircraft that fly today.”

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.