October 24, 2013
By Jill W. Tallman
The state of Connecticut may have named Gustave Whitehead as the inventor who performed the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine, but North Carolina and Ohio legislators aren’t going to let that go.
North Carolina State Sen. Bill Cook (R-First) and Ohio State Rep. Richard Perales (R-Beavercreek) said the Connecticut legislature attempted to rewrite history when it put forth a resolution naming Whitehead as first in flight, upending a title held for more than 100 years by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Cook and Perales spoke at a joint press conference on Oct. 24 at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport.
“The [resolution] revives an old claim that Gustave Whitehead built a flying car and flew it repeatedly in 1900 and 1901,” Perales said. The claim is supported by “fanciful reports” and “witness statements after the fact,” he said, contrasting that with the photos, eyewitnesses, and detailed journal entries that support the Wrights’ flight of a powered, manned aircraft on Dec. 17, 1903.
Whitehead was reported to have flown a powered aircraft in Connecticut on Aug. 14, 1901, according to a newspaper article published in the Bridgeport Herald. That story was picked up and widely reprinted in newspapers around the world, and historians have argued about the legitimacy of Whitehead’s claim ever since. This year, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft’s 100th anniversary edition recognized Whitehead as making the first manned, powered, controlled flight. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a resolution on June 26 declaring Whitehead as the first man to fly in a heavier-than-air machine.
“We talked about letting this go, because sometimes putting attention to something is more than it deserves, but when they made it law, we had to stand up,” Perales said. “Ohio needs to stand by the Wright brothers and speak up for them.” He said he will sponsor a resolution in the Ohio House of Representatives that the Wrights were indeed the first to fly. Cook said he would not draft similar legislation disputing Connecticut’s claim, as North Carolina’s general assembly passed a resolution “in favor of the Wright brothers” in 1985.
“It’s almost beneath recognizing,” Cook said. “The only reason I’m recognizing this is because I think sometimes if you tell a lie or an untruth enough, folks start to believe it, and I want to cut that off at the beginning.”
North Carolina and Ohio have a longtime friendly rivalry about which state holds the bigger claim to the accomplishments of the Wrights. The brothers lived in Dayton, Ohio, where they worked on their aircraft designs while operating a bicycle sales and repair shop. They conducted manned gliding experiments at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and performed their historic powered flights on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hill. The brothers set up an airfield in Huffman Prairie, Ohio, in 1904, where they made a series of flights with later iterations of the Wright Flyer.
Research historian and Connecticut resident Carl Stidsen said the resolution signed in June was “slid in on the last day of the legislative session” as part of an omnibus measure that also “recognized some polka as the Connecticut state dance” and added a second state song.
“The vast majority of people in the great state of Connecticut don’t believe Whitehead did anything,” Stidsen said.
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.
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