Friday, June 28, 2013

Connecticut - First In Flight?

Whitehead (2nd left) in front of No. 21 "The Condor"
Most students learn in school, as I did, that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully make a sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air human flight in an aircraft they built. Most also know this flight took place in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. The string of adjectives is important because they were not the first to invent human flight, nor the first to even create controlled human flight. Still, the Wrights are so well known that the North Carolina license plate announces "First in Flight" to anyone taking a look. However, according to the state of Connecticut, this statement is no longer true.

Earlier this month the Connecticut State Senate passed House Bill No. 6671. Essentially, this bill paves the way for an annual holiday celebrating the Connecticut aviation industry. The bill is also designed to celebrate the achievements of a German immigrant named Gustave Whitehead, who some now claim was the true originator of the powered fixed wing aircraft and truly the first in flight. 

Although supporters of Whitehead have claimed for decades that his flight preceded that of the Wright brothers, recently the argument has been rekindled by the evidence and website of an Australian researcher named John Brown. According to Brown, Gustave Whitehead first successfully flew an aircraft, design No. 21, which he called the Condor near Bridgeport, Connecticut in the early morning of August 1901. If correct, he beat the Wright’s Kitty Hawk flight by more than two years.

Brown presents several pieces of evidence to support the case for Whitehead. First, he claims to have uncovered at least 110 newspaper articles between 1901 and 1902 which reported Whitehead’s flying success. One of the most well known of these articles was published in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. The author, Richard Howell, describes witnessing Whitehead’s first manned flight on the Condor. Further, he lists at least three other witnesses to the event, Andrew Cellie, James Dickie, and a local milkman.

The Herald article did include a photo of Whitehead and a drawing of the Condor in flight, which was supposed to have been based on a photograph taken at the scene. Of this original picture, Brown says it has been lost. Still, he claims to have now uncovered a copy of this visual evidence by examining the background of a separate panorama photo taken in 1906 at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America. This photo shows a glider hanging from the ceiling in front of a wall containing photographs of what appear to be other aircraft. Several of these photos, according to Brown and other researchers, show aircraft built by Whitehead. One of them, Brown insists, shows the Condor in flight.

Drawing from the Bridgeport Sunday Herald
Though most of these background photos are unrecognizably blurred, Brown sites two articles, one published in a 1906 edition of Scientific American as evidence that he has found the correct picture. The articles describe the same wall of photos shown in the picture. According to the author, one of the wall photos showed “A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air . .constructed by Whitehead in 1901.” The author also goes on to say that this was the only photo of an airplane in flight.

Panorama of the Aero Club Exhibition - Whitehead section enlarged
On his website, Brown compares several of these photos with pictures of aircraft known to have been built by Whitehead. Indeed, he seems to prove that the majority of the pictures are not those referenced in the Scientific American article. However, Brown next examines one of the most blurred images to the drawing created for the Bridgeport Herald in 1901. Ultimately, Brown concluded that there were remarkable similarities between the two images. Enough similarities, in fact, to conclude the blurred image in the panorama photo is the long lost photo taken in Connecticut in 1901.

John Brown's comparison - Do these images show the same event?
Though the image Brown compares to the Bridgeport drawing is very unclear, Brown points out that it does seem to be situated with other Whitehead pictures, it does seems to show an aircraft above the ground, looks vaguely similar to other picture of the Condor, and is located pretty much in the same place as the mystery photo described in Scientific American. Therefore, he deduces that this blurred image must be the picture described in the article. Based on the evidence given, he surmises that Whitehead did fly before the Wright brothers.

Additionally, Brown goes on to explain that Whitehead next built an aircraft he called No. 22, with which he performed even longer flights. Brown sites the affidavits and statements from at least 17 witnesses to support the flights of No. 22. Replicas of this plane have been flown in both Germany and the US in more recent times.

Though there seems to be substantial evidence that Whitehead actually flew in 1901, others disagree. Tom Crouch, at the Smithsonian Magazine site critiques the Whitehead case. According to Crouch, who is the director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, there is not enough evidence to support that the 1901 flight actually took place.

First, Crouch examined the written account published in the Bridgeport Herald. In the article, the author listed at least three witnesses to Whitehead’s flight. However, in 1936 a researcher from Harvard University named John Crane returned to Bridgeport in order to investigate the 1901 event. Crane could only find a single person who claimed to remember Whitehead’s sustained flight as reported in the Herald.

Furthermore, no relation, neighbor, or friend of Whitehead could remember to have even heard of the prolonged flight Whitehead claimed to have made in August of 1901. The one witness who claimed to have seen this flight was deemed less than credible by Crane due to the profit the witness was set to receive upon the publication of a book about Whitehead.

According to Crouch, the 1936 investigators even attempted to interview the witnesses referenced in the Bridgeport Herald. One witness could not be found, nor did anyone remember him. The other witness denied having ever seen Whitehead fly in August of 1901. He even went as far as to suggest that the Herald invented the story.

Crane did seem to attempt investigate the Whitehead’s case fairly. He did find several witnesses in the village who claimed to have seen Whitehead actually fly. What they could not agree upon was the duration and height of the flights they saw. Therefore, Crane concluded that Gustave Whitehead might have actually made several short, un-sustained, manned flights. Based on eye witness accounts these flights ranged from as low as 4 feet to as high as 25 feet and lasted anywhere from several yards to over 60 yards. However, they were not the sustained, controlled, powered flight as described in the original article.

At this point, despite the bill the Connecticut legislature has passed, whether or not Gustave Whitehead flew before the Wright brothers is pretty unclear. There are conflicting witness reports, no real conclusive photographic evidence, and other pieces of historic evidence don’t lend credence to the August 1901 event. For instance, though Whitehead went on to become a designer of airplane engines, no other aircraft designed by Whitehead ever actually flew until recently.

Still others point to the conduct of Orville and Wilbur Wright as evidence of a conspiracy. The brothers were secretive and were embattled in lawsuits against competitors. Critics point out that the Smithsonian currently holds a contract with the estate of Orville Wright. The contract dictates that the Smithsonian would lose custody of the aircraft of the Wright brother’s should they ever declare that another was actually first to fly. I must agree, on the surface that does not give me confidence in the unbiased historic opinion of the Smithsonian Institution on this matter.

However, I personally love this controversy. It demonstrates how history is constructed, de-constructed, and re-constructed. The very essence of this conflict stems from differing interpretations of the same sources, the sense of which I try to impart to my students all the time. Aspects of the arguments used on both sides of the issue are fascinating and at least sound enough to convince the law makers in Connecticut to legislate the recognition of Gustave Whitehead as the father of aviation. Perhaps the missing original photograph taken by the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, key to the entire argument, will eventually turn up. Until then, I am not convinced New England was first in flight. That honor remains with the Wright brothers and with the state of North Carolina.


  1. Dear Mr. Yankee,

    I'm the John Brown you refer to in your article. Thanks for your attention to my work.

    You cite the Wrights' 1903 claim as the threshold of evidence for first flight. I do not wish to question their claim. But let's look at how it's supported:

    Only two (of five) Kitty Hawk witnesses made written statements, both in 1935 and neither under oath. John Daniels stated the plane was launched from up on the slope of a sand dune and flew toward the ocean below head height. The witness, Etheridge, wrote he saw the same thing as Daniels, i.e., he made no actual statement of his own.

    So what we have is a hillside launch accelerated by tugging it off a rail and flying it down to MSL in ground effect for 40 yards. (I'm not making this up.) That's what the famous photo shows.

    With Whitehead, we have 17 witnesses (14 under oath) who testified at different times in different places, yet still corroborated each other. We have other witnesses - one an aeronautical expert from Scientific American - who say they saw a photo of Whitehead in his 1901 airplane in successful, powered flight. (And now we have - in all likelihood - the photo they were referring to - unfortunately very blurred. (For me, the witnesses are enough. I had no cause to doubt what the journalists said they saw when they viewed that photo up close.)

    My point is:
    - if you accept the standard of evidence for the Wrights' 1903 flight, then you must also accept Whitehead's 1901 flight; and
    - if you reject the evidence for Whitehead's 1901 flight, then you must also reject the Wrights' 1903 flight.
    So, it's either both or none. The only way you can accept one but reject the other is by applying differing standards of evidence to each claim.

    Best regards,


    1. John,
      I very much enjoyed your research and was admittedly beginning my own research hoping to be convinced that a New England state was first in flight.

      Certainly, I learned a great deal about Whitehead and the Wrights during my reading and my opinion of the Wrights has changed quite a bit. They, like most people, are not the characters written about in text books. Your research would make a great basis for a lesson plan in my classroom.

      I also loved your point that a photo should not be needed to prove that a historic event took place, as it had not been needed for thousands of years. You are also right that, everything being equal, the evidence you present should be enough cement Whitehead as the father of modern aviation.
      However, everything is not equal.

      As unfair as it is, those who supposrt Whitehead will be burdened with the need to present more or less unquestionable data to overturn what has been indoctrined as historical "fact." This was really why I still came down on the side of the Wrights. There was enough evidence to caste doubt on the case of the Wrights, but not enough evidence to 100% prove the case for Whitehead, at least in my mind.

      I will continue to follow this story and any new developments in evidence. I really hope to one day be convinced that New England was first in flight.

    2. Yes, everything is not equal in the world and society. But under the Law (and in academic inquiry) it is. Think about it.

      When rendering an hisorical judgement, the standard expected of someone sitting in front of a TV-set is different than what's expected of historical investigators.

  2. When I was a child, I was taught that Columbus discovered America, as if there were not millions of people already here, and as if others had not previously landed on the shores of North America. Albert Einstein says this, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
    Some of the above article is inaccurate. There are three witnesses to the Aug. 14, 1901 flight, and it was referred to in at least 75 newspapers at the time, and for a decade hence in the Scientific American, about six times. The three witnesses were the sports editor of the Herald, a reporter named Dick Howell, Anton Pruckner, and Junius Harworth. One documented it in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald (a weekly paper) and the other two by affidavits. Dr. Crane, Alfred Zahm, Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association, Major William J. O'Dwyer (USAF, ret) and the CT-based 9415th AF Squadron (ret), as well as Stella Randolph. All concluded that Whitehead had made flights, most of those interviewed the witnesses. Even Paul Garber of the Smithsonian heard was present for one witness. I met several and was present for Anton Pruckner's interview in the 1960's. This really did occur, this first flight. Also, all the witnesses spoke of flights prior to 1903. So you can pick and choose which ones you like the documentation for best but they all show Whitehead flew before the Wrights with power and control. The sustained flights which were also both witnessed, were up to 10 times the distance of the Wrights. Whitehead replicas both flew too, which is far more than we can say of the Wright replicas, as we saw on Dec. 13, 1901. We've all been duped by the Smithsonian and the Wrights, who hired a promoter to gain first flight recognition after the first decade. If history isn't accurate, why learn it? The Wrights did not invent the first airplane to make a sustained flight with power and control. Whitehead did. We can credit the Wrights for helping develop a practical airplane, along with Glenn Curtiss and others of the era. Once the Wrights had a working plane they busily sold rights to France and Germany for war. There's lots we haven't been told.

    1. Dr. Crane, Alfred Zahm, Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association, Major William J. O'Dwyer (USAF, ret) and the CT-based 9415th AF Squadron (ret), as well as Stella Randolph researched Whitehead (is what it should say).

    2. Your article at least attempted to examine both sides of this controversy. However, I was surprised to see your final conclusion--that the honor of first flight belongs to the Wrights.
      A few more documented facts might sway your opinion. Among these facts: there were only two peope who agreed on what happened Dec. 17, 1903. They were Orville and Wilbur Wright. Of the other five witnesses, the three who were interviewed didn't agree with the Wrights' statements.
      The Wrights claimed the flights were from level ground. According to two of the witnesses, it was from the side of the hill. Since the 12 hp engine was not enough power to lift the Wright flyer I from level ground then or later, the witness statements accord with the facts. All the flights were neither sustained nor controlled as the Wright people like to claim. They were straight line "hops" that ended in crashes or pilot errors.
      There is the famous photo of the "event" that didn't appear until 1908, about the time the Wrights went back to Kitty Hawk. Who knows when it was taken? Daniels doesn't remember taking the photo, even though the Wrights told him he did.
      How much more information is needed to cast reasonable doubt on the Wrights' claims? There is plenty more.

    3. One mustn't forget the 26-27 mph hour headwind documented by the weather station for Kitty Hawk the day of Dec. 17, 1903.
      The Wrights' telegram sent to their father that day states that they took off from level ground with their own power. The real power was gravity, the wind, their underpowered motor, and a few prayers. The Wrights' telegram, an obvious "departure from the truth" is the beginning of the history of flight as we are taught in our textbooks.

    4. First, thanks for reading the post. Yes, Columbus is a good example, but this story is more like Edison vs Tesla. Thanks for pointing out some things I will seek to correct in the article as well. I appreciate your concerns about learning inaccurate history. For me, as well as for you I suspect, history is less about learning factoids and trivia and more about learning to work with sources. This is something I try to teach my students.

      As for my conclusion in the article, as of the current evidence, I am stikcing with it. Both John Crane's interviews + conclusions, and the 1937 Affidavit of James Dickie remain concerning for me, despite the fact that some have attempted to discreddit Dickie later on.

      As I mentioned previously, I will be open to new research and ideas and will continue to research this topic. Again, thanks for reading.

    5. Hello, Please take a look at the material I've posted on my Gustave Whitehead web site, especially the page concerning the true identification of the blurry photo as the John J. Montgomery glider "The California" on May 21, 1905, at Agricultural Park, San Jose, California (the link to that page is found at the very top of the web site's front page). Mr. Brown's "forensic examination" produced a false result.

      You might also find the articles I've posted on my site to be of interest, in the James Dickie matter, for instance.

      Thanks for having an interest in this subject - it is of remarkable interest to many people.

      - Carroll F. Gray

  3. As described above, these were not flights. They were glides, or possibly powered glides. The Wrights went back to Dayton from Kitty Hawk, and in 1904, built another flyer. But even with a stronger motor and aeronautical improvements, they still couldn't take off from level ground, make sustained flights, or get the plane under control. What does that say about the 1903 plane's accomplishments?