There is no doubt the prolific Gustave Whitehead deserves an honorable mention in the Hall of Aviation Pioneers. He built dozens of aircraft and workable gliders as well as several lightweight gasoline-powered engines, and Scientific American frequently mentioned his work. But was he “first in flight”? No. Those honors go to the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who completed the first powered, man-carrying, controlled flight of more than a few meters in the first decade of the 20th century.
The Wright Brothers have many critics. I am one of them. They achieved one of humanity’s oldest dreams and unlocked the mystery of flight. Then they tried to hoard this treasure for years, combining secrecy with lawsuits against other aviation pioneers, strangling progress in an era when flying and aeronautics was flourishing—such bad behavior. Scientific American was an early critic of the secretive Wright Brothers, too. We covered the Wright glider experiments in an article of February 22, 1902, but the powered flights of the following few years were met with skepticism. On January 13, 1906, we huffed:
“If such sensational and tremendously important experiments are being conducted in a not very remote part of the country, on a subject in which almost everybody feels the most profound interest, is it possible to believe that the enterprising American reporter, who, it is well known, comes down the chimney when the door is locked in his face—even if he has to scale a fifteen-story sky-scraper to do so—would not have ascertained all about them and published them broadcast long ago?”
Now the State of Connecticut has decided that the Wrights were truly not first in flight. Substitute House Bill 6671, offered by Rep. Lawrence Miller of the 122nd District, in the “Plain English” analysis, “specifies that Powered Flight Day is in honor of the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead, rather than the Wright Brothers.” The bill also establishes “the Ballroom Polka as the state polka” and “Beautiful Connecticut Waltz, composed by Joseph Leggo, as the second state song”—so perhaps Mr. Leggo will regard this first- and second-place revisionism with more alarm than I do.
Gustave Whitehead in flight at an altitude of 4 meters with the motive power provided by a brawny assistant. It does classify as flight, but perhaps not the “flight” referred to by the Connecticut Legislature. Credit: Scientific American, September 19, 1903
Many people say that the Wright Brothers were not first in flight. These critics are correct. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier of France were responsible for the first manned flight in history, in 1783, with the invention of a practical hot-air balloon.
Perhaps the important aspect of all this is not flight, per se, but powered flight. Very well, then Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian living in Paris, “the father of aviation,” is the holder of those laurels. On October 19, 1901, Santos-Dumont flew his gasoline-powered dirigible around the Eiffel Tower in Paris. A dirigible is an airship. A big bag of gas.
Flight means fixed wings, to some. Then the English can proudly offer George Cayley, who developed a glider that carried a 10-year-old boy in 1849 and an adult—perhaps Cayley’s coachman—in 1853. (Apparently, the coachman quit right after the flight.)
Controllable flight? Otto Lilienthal of Germany might win those laurels for his multiple glider flights, even though lack of control caused his death from a glider accident in 1896.
Powered, heavier-than-air flight of any substantial distance? Samuel Langley of the U.S. did that way back in 1896 with his steam-powered Aerodrome, which flew for about a kilometer. It was an unpiloted model.
Powered, heavier-than-air, man-carrying flight. For this most important multi-adjective title, many contenders are trotted out by their partisan supporters, and they all claim to have beaten the Wright Brothers into the air. Here are some of them: Clement Ader!, say the French. His purported 20-centimeter altitude and 50-meter distance seems worthy of a footnote, but not laurels. Richard Pearse of New Zealand, who crashed into a spiny gorse hedge. Karl Jatho of Germany. Augustus Moore Herring of Michigan. Powered “flights” all. Hops of only a handful of meters. Is that flight? To those readers who are from France, New Zealand, Germany, Michigan—apparently yes.
The State of Connecticut, however, is keen to legislate its way to the front of the pack. Their decision is partly based on a very fuzzy photograph recently unearthed by aviation historian John Brown of Australia in Bavaria and dated to 1906. It purports to show an aircraft in flight in 1901. “Or a frog” as one wag commenting on CNN’s report put it. The photo in question is too fuzzy to show pilot or motor or a towline or Whitehead, and could easily be a glider. (Scientific American has images of Whitehead piloting a glider—an unpowered airplane.) Or it could be a frog making a hop. But why quibble?
The main evidence in favor of a Whitehead flight is a newspaper article from the Bridgeport Herald, published on Sunday, August 18, 1901, about an airplane flight from Fairfield, Conn. There is a quote from Whitehead, supposedly on how he felt while flying: “I never felt such a strange sensation as when the machine first left the ground and started on her flight. I heard nothing but the rumbling of the engine and the flapping of the big wings.” Flapping? Really? That design is called an ornithopter and is a very unusual design for a man-carrying aircraft. Whitehead was a prolific builder and inventor, but no working airplanes exist (apart from reengineered, redesigned ones reconstructed by those in the Whitehead camp). The consensus on the article is that it was an interesting work of fiction, written as such, and not intended to be a serious report on flight research. The sentiment is echoed by the 1937 affidavit from James Dickie, who was listed by the Bridgeport Herald as being present at the flight: “I believe the entire story in the Herald was imaginary, and grew out of the comments of Whitehead in discussing what he hoped to get from his plane.”
Gustave Whitehead, aviation pioneer, with one of his many aircraft designs. There is no substantiated record of Whitehead ever flying any of his own powered airplanes over any substantial distance. Credit: Scientific American, June 8, 1901
But real, powered, man-carrying, controlled, long-distance flight? That honor still belongs to the Wright Brothers. But not for their feeble flights of 1903. On October 5, 1905, at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur Wright flew the modified Wright Flyer III for 38 kilometers. Now that is a flight. The Flyer III is the first fixed-wing aircraft to be designated a National Historic Landmark. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers honors the Flyer III as “the first practical airplane.”
The fact that the 1905 flight was in Ohio does beg the question, however, of why North Carolina claims to be “First in Flight”? Perhaps the legislatures of those two states need to duke it out. Oh wait...Duke is in North Carolina...
For readers who would like to read some of the original stories on aviation from our magazine, take a look at “The Birth of Flight,” part of the Scientific American Classics series, available for purchase here.