In its 100th anniversary edition, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, the bible of aviation, finally sets the record straight: the Wright brothers were not the first to fly an airplane (the Flyer) at Kitty Hawk in December of 1903 — that recognition goes to Gustav Whitehead (born Gustav Weisskopf), an aviation pioneer, who flew the first plane two years earlier in 1901 at Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Bridgeport Herald reported that Whitehead flew the Condor No. 21 aircraft on August 18, 1901 at about 5:03 am. In its first flight, the Condor flew about half a mile; then on its second flight, it flew 50 feet above the ground for a distance of 1.5 miles, and made a slight turn to avoid some trees. Due to technical difficulties, a photo of that monumental achievement — history’s first manned, powered, controlled, sustained flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft — was not published; instead, the editor published a lithography of the plane in flight.
The claim that Whitehead had flown before the Wright Brothers had surfaced as early as 1937. If the Wright Brothers were truly not the first to fly an airplane, why has it taken so long to set the record straight? Part of the blame is with the Wright Brothers who were successful businessesmen and had the connections and influence to effectively squash Whitehead’s claims, dismissing it as a hoax. And part of the blame lies with the Smithsonian Institution where the 1903 Wright’s Flyer is proudly on display at the National Air and Space Museum. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, researchers uncovered the Smithsonian’s dirty little secret: in 1948 the Smithsonian purchased the Wright’s Flyer for one dollar and bound by the following condition that specifically suppressed the actual historical record: “Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the 1903 Wright Aeroplane, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.” Ironically, the Smithsonian was established in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Go figure.
Thanks to the indefatigable research efforts of William O’Dwyer, a pilot and native of Bridgeport who had been collecting evidence for more than 20 years, 60 Minutes decided to take a look at this important issue. On December 27, 1987, Harry Reasoner presented his investigation, titled “Wright is Wrong?” that directly asked: “Were the Wright brothers really the first people to fly a plane?” Reasoner kicks off the segment by stating: “Nobody is arguing that Wilbur and Orville did it [fly an airplane], but there are some folks in Connecticut who say this ought to be the Whitehead monument and it ought to be in Bridgeport, Connecticut.” Reasoner interviewed Dwyer who presented very compelling evidence; Dwyer was a champion for the unvarnished truth: “We should be mature enough as a nation at this part of the century… to know who did or did not fly first.” Reasoner also interviewed the curator of the Smithsonian at that time. A skeptical Reasoner asks: “What would convince you that the Whitehead claim is true?” Without missing a beat, the curator responded: “I am not here to be convinced.” Like Galileo standing before a panel of interrogators during the infamous Inquisition, Whitehead and his achievement never had a real chance to see the light of day.
Building on the research of O’Dwyer, John Brown (creator of the site that contains all the latest information on Whitehead) has benefitted greatly from the proliferation of archival material now available on the internet — much of it surfacing for the first time. Brown has built a solid case for Whitehead’s first flight. Since the Smithsonian has consistently denied the truth, the responsibility for correcting the history books had to fall another respected organization — Jane’s Information Group. In the foreward of the latest edition of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, titled “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied”, editor in chief Paul Jackson supports the extensive research uncovered by Dwyer and Brown, giving Whitehead the proper recognition for the first flight. Jackson writes: “While it is often the case that ‘the second mouse gets the cheese’, history is capricious in its decision to record the first or the second inventor’s or (discoverer’s) name. To take but one example, John Logie Baird is still lauded as the ‘inventor of television’, but his electromechanical system was a technological dead-end which was rapidly overtaken by an entirely different and more practical method, omitting a mechanical scan. Whitehead was in Baird’s category, except that his recognition has been, largely, withheld. The Wrights, with their more tractable wing design, were ‘the second mouse’ and, perhaps, one of the things they learned from Whitehead’s misfortune was the need for rigorous protection of their patents and wide avoidance of offers of business partnerships from characters of unproven honesty… Thanks to the meticulous researches of John Brown… an injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville’s reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead.”
Almost 110 years later, the history and aviation books will be rewritten and generations of school children will recognize a once-obscure name. The Smithsonian’s reputation has been tarnished and it will some time for its curators to assure the world that other historical facts have not been compromised for the sake of expediency; at the very least, the board should take a hard look at their acquisitions policy. O’Dwyer and Brown can take pride in their tireless research where truth and justice eventually prevailed. And, finally, North Carolina, which takes great pride in the Wright Brothers’ achievement at Kitty Hawak and profits from the many related tourist attractions, is now faced with the daunting task of correcting millions of license plates that boast: “First in Flight” or developing a better motto than “Second in Flight.”
Read related post: The Buck Stops Here
For further reading: cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57599046-10391709/its-official-the-wright-bros-werent-first/