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3 states tussle over bragging rights to 1st flight

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 11:42 p.m. CDT

Ohio and North Carolina drew a line on the tarmac Thursday in the fight over who was first to make a powered airplane flight.

Ohio license plates proclaim the state is the "Birthplace of Aviation" while North Carolina tags say the state is "First in Flight." Connecticut believes both are wrong.

There, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law this summer saying German-born aviator and Bridgeport, Conn., resident Gustave Whitehead was the first to make a powered flight.

The state went on record saying Whitehead made his flight in 1901 — two years before Wilbur and Orville Wright lifted off on North Carolina's Outer Banks. The brothers were from Ohio.

On Thursday, Ohio state Rep. Rick Perales and North Carolina state Sen. Bill Cook held news conferences in their respective states to dispute Connecticut's action and reassert that the Wright Brothers were first.

"It's important to protect the truth," said Cook, whose district includes the Outer Banks. "Nowadays it seems like there are an awful lot of people who are trying to rewrite history."

"If the Connecticut legislature hadn't changed the law to acknowledge Whitehead as the first in flight, I think we would have just let it slide," said Perales, whose district includes Huffman Prairie, where the Wright Brothers had a hanger and tested their planes.

Recent interest in Whitehead came as a documentary aired in the spring by an Australian historian, John Brown, who reviewed photographs, documents and newspaper articles to make his determination that Whitehead was first.

After looking at the research, Jane's All the World's Aircraft, an influential industry publication, agreed.

In the summer, as Connecticut passed its measure, Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, said Whitehead's backers were "absolutely wrong." The Wrights' plane is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.

"Whitehead's legend has spawned much speculation and hearsay," Crouch said then. "People who have looked at this over the years ... almost unanimously reject the claim."

But the Smithsonian is forbidden by a contract with the Wright brothers' estate to admit that anyone else was the first to fly, in part because they had previously fought off other claims.

Both lawmakers said the Whitehead claim is based on a grainy photo that is inconclusive.

Cook said what is supposed to be Whitehead's plane in the photograph "looks like a frog to me." After their flight, the Wright brothers took their plane to Europe to show folks the newfangled flying technology but Whitehead did little, he said.

"He didn't go anywhere or do anything," Cook said. "If it was me, and I had invented a machine to fly and was the first one to do it, I would be out there crowing and telling everyone what was going on."

Whitehead's supporters said he had bad judgment when he tried to commercialize his design.

Perales said he is an engineer and is willing to consider evidence that perhaps the Wright brothers were not the first.

"If there is substantial evidence that leads us to believe it may be different then we're all comfortable with that," he said. "But there's absolutely nothing."

Connecticut state Rep. Larry Miller, who introduced the bill that became law, released an email statement this week saying that is not the case.

"Mounting evidence including over 100 contemporary published accounts of the event and supporting photographs were sufficient for Jane's All the World Aircraft, the Bible of aviation, to declare in March of this year that Whitehead should be credited with the first flight which took place right here in Stratford, Conn., on August 14, 1901," the statement said.

Perales and Cook said the Connecticut legislature is not the first to weigh in.

"This thing comes up every 20 years or so," Perales said.

Cook said that in 1985, the North Carolina legislature passed a resolution repudiating any contention that Whitehead was the first in flight.

"I think it's a silly issue but an issue worth talking about because it's so important to North Carolina," Cook said. "North Carolina is defined by several things and one of the big ones is where the first flight occurred."

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