Who Flew First?

A Smithsonian curator evaluates recent challenges to the Wright brothers’ place in history.

In 1904, Gustave Whitehead was photographed with his 1901 machine — on the ground. (NASM, SI-2002-29482)
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The possibility that someone may have flown a powered airplane before the Wright brothers is back in the news. Over the years a number of candidates have been suggested for first-flight honors. Hiram Maxim, Clement Ader, Karl Jatho, and Augustus Moore Herring, for example, were serious experimenters who bounced for distances of less than 200 feet through the air. Why aren’t any of them credited with having made the first flight? Their machines were not capable of either sustaining themselves in the air or operating under the control of the pilot, both of which are generally regarded as necessary qualifications for a genuine flight.

A handful of flight claims have taken deeper root. Many Brazilians credit Alberto Santos-Dumont, who made the first public flight in Europe three years after the Wrights flew at Kitty Hawk, simply because his aircraft sported wheels, while the Wrights took off from a monorail track. Some New Zealanders argue that Richard Pearse made a powered flight as early as the spring of 1903—months before the Wrights’ first flight on December 17—even though Pearse himself remarked that he had not begun his experiments until 1904, and then only after being inspired by news accounts of the Wright brothers.

That brings us to the claims of Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant who settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he claimed to have made some spectacular flights. As an aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum and a historian of early flight, I have studied the various accounts championing Whitehead’s assertions. His claims had been rejected and forgotten by 1935, when a researcher found a turn-of-the-century newspaper article on Whitehead’s experiments and decided to take up his cause. Every few decades since then, someone has rediscovered the story and insisted that Whitehead be accorded the honors due him.

The latest round of Whitehead enthusiasm began last March, when the editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft announced that the centennial edition of that reference work would recognize Whitehead’s priority. His decision generated a flurry of news stories and led some popular aviation magazines to express interest in the revised history. The legislature of Connecticut, the would-be aviator’s home state, passed a provision creating a state Powered Flight Day to honor him.

So, what is the evidence for the Whitehead flights?

On August 18, 1901, a Bridgeport newspaper published an article describing a half-mile flight said to have taken place four days earlier. The story was picked up by press associations and spread around the globe in articles based entirely on the original, without adding any new information. James Dickie, the only “witness” named in the original account who could be interviewed, later branded the story a hoax: “I was not present and did not witness any airplane flight on August 14, 1901. I do not remember…ever hearing of a flight with this particular plane or any other that Whitehead ever built.”

In the spring of 1902, Whitehead published an article claiming to have flown seven miles over Long Island Sound. Just days after his article appeared, a Bridgeport paper published a story titled “The Last Flop of the Whitehead Flying Machine,” reporting that Whitehead’s 1901 and 1902 aircraft had both been failures.

Thirty years after the supposed flights, researchers began gathering contradictory witness testimony regarding the old claims. At least one of those witnesses had been paid to remember a flight. Others had offered memories that were demonstrably false. Whitehead supporters swear by those accounts; the skeptics dismiss them.

Here is why I am one of the skeptics: There are no original documents supporting the Whitehead claim. Unlike the Wright brothers, the inventor left no letters, diaries, notebooks, calculations, or drawings recording his experiments, his thoughts, or the details of his craft. While there are a handful of photographs of the 1901 machine, there is not a single verifiable photo of the aircraft in which Whitehead claimed to have flown seven miles in 1902. There is no creditable photo of any powered Whitehead aircraft in flight.

Family members reported that they had never seen Whitehead fly. The individuals most closely associated with him, including those funding his effort, universally doubted that he had ever flown. Bostonian Samuel Cabot, who employed Whitehead in 1897, described him as “a pure romancer and a supreme master of the gentle art of lying.” John Dvorak, a Washington University instructor who visited Whitehead in 1904, reported that he “did not meet a single individual who had ever seen Whitehead make a flight.” Stanley Yale Beach, who supported Whitehead’s work for years, agreed: “I do not believe that any of his machines ever left the ground.…”

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