Was Connecticut First in Flight?

A Bridgeport man is getting credit for beating the Wright Brothers to fly.

The Wright brothers have long held an esteemed position in history as the inventors of the airplane, but there is a growing debate that a Connecticut man might have beat them to it — and he is getting widespread attention.

Research into claims that Gustav Whitehead, a German man who lived and worked in Bridgeport, Conn., was the first to fly has been done for decades, but it is making headlines because a respected aviation publication is giving it credence. 

In the forward of its latest edition, Paul Jackson, editor of ”Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” writes of extensive research that aviation historian John Brown did into Whitehead and his flight of a plane called the Condor in 1901, two years before the Wright Brothers took to the skies over North Carolina. 

“In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor's wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated,” Jackson writes in a an article posted on the publication Web site.

The further addressed why it took so long for Whitehead to be mentioned, citing international incidents and loss of records over the years.

“If this were to be the 110th Foreword, instead of the 100th, Fred Jane would have recorded Whitehead's flying machines and their achievements in his early editions, probably securing for this underrated pioneer a full paragraph in the annals of aviation history, rather than his present, dismissive footnote. Having occurred before Jane's first edition, the matter cannot be regarded as unfinished business for Fred Jane or his successors but, most certainly, we are convinced he would have approved of any efforts made to get the facts right, whatever the delay. Thanks to the meticulous researches of John Brown - to whose website www.gustave-whitehead.com we earnestly recommend readers seeking greater detail - an injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville's reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead,” Jackson wrote.

Whitehead’s story is nothing new in the city of Bridgeport, where a memorial fountain to Whitehead is engraved “First in Flight.”

“Jane’s has solidified what we’ve known all along – Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly a powered, manned aircraft before the Wright Brothers, and he did it right here in Bridgeport,” Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said in a statement. “Perhaps now, Whitehead will receive the recognition from in this country that he so richly deserves.”

Mary Witkowski, the Bridgeport city historian, is celebrating the recognition in her article, "Bridgeport, Connecticut the 'Right' Flight," on the Bridgeport library Web site.

The history center of the library has "scads of articles on file" to support Whitehead's flight on Aug. 14, 1901.

"We believe in Gustave Whitehead," Witkowski wrote.

While Bridgeport is thrilled with the attention of a local man, it is not without controversy that stems back to the origins of flight.

Orville Wright, so many decades ago, dismissed that Whitehead was first, according to Jane’s. The Smithsonian has also discounted the claims, citing a lack of evidence.

“Perhaps the strongest argument against the Whitehead claims is to be found in the fact that not one of the powered machines that he built after 1902 ever left the ground. Nor did any of those machines resemble the aircraft that he claimed to have flown in 1901-1902. Why did he not follow up his early success? Why did he depart from a basic design that he claimed had been successful? Are we to assume that he forgot the secret of flight?” Tom Couch, of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, wrote on March 15.

Jane’s put the spotlight on the matter of a legally-binding agreement between the Wrights and the Smithsonian, questioning whether that is a reason that Whitehead was kept out of the history books.  

According to Jane’s, then-Senator Lowell Weicker Jr. learned through a Freedom of Information Request   that the Smithsonian Institute obtained the Wright Flyer No. 1, but “only after agreeing in a legally-binding document that "the Smithsonian shall [not state] any aircraft...earlier than the Wright aeroplane of 1903...was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."
Couch addresses this in documents posted on the Smithsonian Web site

“Invariably referred to as “the contract,” this agreement was the result of a long feud between Mr. Orville Wright and Smithsonian leaders,” Couch wrote.

That feud was over a plane that S.P. Langley, third Secretary of the Smithsonian, developed in 1903.
It crashed when tested that year , but flew in 1914 after modifications and Smithsonian officials made false claims that the 1903 original plane had been “capable of flight,” according to Couch.
Fast-forward to 1942, and there was an agreement to bring the plane to the Smithsonian, but executors of Orville Wright’s estate insisted on a some conditions to make sure that the feud would not be reopened in the future, according to Couch.

"Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor 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 Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight. Failure to observe this condition. Failure to observe this condition by the Smithsonian will result in a return of the “Flyer” to the vendors, according to paragraph four of the contract,” the contract states, according to Couch.

“Over the years individuals who argue for other claimants to the honor of having made the first flight have claimed that the contract is secret. It is not. I have sent many copies upon request. Critics have also charged that no Smithsonian staff member would ever be willing to entertain such a possibility and risk losing a national treasure. I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer,” Couch writes.

You be the judge: http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history/detailed-photo-analysis/

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