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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Step back from the details and consider the subsequent events. Whitehead continued to build powered flying machines under contract for other experimenters as late as 1908; not one of these ever flew. Had the man who claimed to have flown seven miles in 1902 forgotten the secret of flight just six years later? Moreover, not one of those later craft bears any resemblance to his supposedly successful machine of 1901. Why did he abandon a successful design in favor of very different ones?

Yet the Whitehead claim continues to exercise an appeal. People are attracted to the possibility that history may have gotten it wrong—that Shakespeare may not have written the plays, that Bell may not have invented the telephone, that someone might have made a real powered flight before Wilbur and Orville. We should always be open to new evidence that may lead us to rethink events of the past. After seven decades of trying, however, the supporters of Gustave Whitehead have failed to prove their case.

Whitehead supporters have dismissed Smithsonian critics like me as incapable of an unbiased opinion in this case as a result of a 1948 agreement with the heirs of Orville Wright’s estate. The executors of the estate wanted to avoid a repetition of the Smithsonian’s false and ill-advised claims that the failed 1903 Langley Aerodrome had been “capable” of flight before the Wrights, so in the agreement transferring the world’s first airplane to the National Museum, they inserted a statement stipulating that if the Smithsonian ever recognized that a machine was “capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight” before the Wrights, the heirs would have the right to request the return of the historic machine. I regard that clause as a healthy reminder of the bad old days when the Smithsonian misrepresented facts to protect the legacy of its third secretary, Samuel P. Langley. (If you would like to read the entire clause stipulating that the Smithsonian accord the Wright Flyer the claim of first, you can find it on the National Air and Space Museum’s website, airandspace.si.edu.)

In the most recent controversy over Whitehead’s claims, critics have charged that because of the risk of losing a national treasure, no Smithsonian staff member would entertain the possibility that someone flew before the Wrights. If I were ever convinced that the evidence supported a pre-Wright claimant, I would say so. I can assure you, however, that the evidence would have to be a whole lot more persuasive than anything offered so far by those who believe Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly.

Tom Crouch is the senior aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

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