Shared Wright Brothers legacy unites NC and Ohio in spat with Connecticut

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comOctober 23, 2013 

Editor's note: State Sen. Bill Cook of Chocowinity was incorrectly identified as Phil Cook in this story about the Wright Brothers' 1903 flight on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

RALEIGH - Ohio and North Carolina partisans, who have sniped at each other in a century-long struggle over the Wright Brothers legacy, will join forces this week for a First-in-Flight feud with a new common enemy: Connecticut.

In a shared press conference to be staged Thursday near historic aviation landmarks at Dayton and Kitty Hawk, two legislators from the Buckeye and Tar Heel states will launch a hot-air assault on a new Connecticut law that gives credit for the first flight by a heavier-than-air craft to a Bavarian immigrant named Gustave Whitehead.

“Sometimes people say things that aren’t true, and if they say them enough, people start to believe them,” N.C. Sen. Bill Cook of Chocowinity, whose district includes the Dare County Outer Banks, said in an interview Wednesday. “I really can’t believe what the folks in Connecticut did. That’s beyond the pale.”

The Whitehead legislation “kind of crossed the line,” said Ohio Rep. Rick Perales, a retired Air Force major who commanded a squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, named for the brothers. “Changing history without any substantive evidence is just, in my eye, irresponsible.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright refined their box-kite biplane at their bicycle shop in Ohio. They launched it at North Carolina’s windswept Outer Banks on Dec. 17, 1903. They took care to document their historic feat with copious records, witnesses and photographs.

But was the Wrights’ flight truly the first?

Whitehead claimed to have flown for two miles in his bird-like machine on Aug. 14, 1901, near Bridgeport, Conn., and for seven miles in 1902 over Long Island Sound. Scattered newspaper reports from that decade include eyewitness accounts, recantations, boasts and declarations of failure.

The Wrights and others credited Whitehead with building engines for other successful airplanes in subsequent years. But the only clear photographs from that era showed Whitehead and his own aircraft on the ground – not in the air.

Whitehead’s claim was debated for decades after his death in 1927. It picked up momentum this year when Australian researcher John Brown announced on his website, gustave-whitehead.com, that he had photographic proof. From a photo of a 1906 aviation exhibition hall, Brown zoomed in on a group of photographs displayed on a wall at the back of the room. He enlarged and analyzed a tiny, blurry rectangle and declared it to be a photograph of Whitehead’s 1901 flight.

Paul Jackson, editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft – widely respected as an aviation authority – may have tipped the scales with an endorsement of Brown’s finding. He declared that the first controlled flight of a powered airplane had indeed taken place in Connecticut in 1901.

Condor vs. Wright Flyer

In terms of aerodynamic design, Whitehead’s No. 21 Condor was inferior to the Wright Flyer, Jackson said. It looked like a rowboat suspended from ribbed, bird-like wings and steered with a bird-like tail. But Whitehead compensated with more locomotive power – 30 horsepower in his engine, compared to the Wrights’ 12.

“The Wrights were right, but Whitehead was ahead,” Jackson wrote.

Connecticut residents had long been fans of Whitehead. Bridgeport last year erected a monument with a stylized replica of his aircraft and an inscription hijacked from the North Carolina license plate slogan: First in Flight.

But there was plenty of respect for the Wright Brothers in Connecticut history, too. U.S. Sen. Hiram Bingham of Connecticut helped secure money to establish a marker at Kitty Hawk recognizing the first flight. He attended the dedication in 1928 with dignitaries including Orville Wright and aviator Amelia Earhart.

And there was a state law authorizing an annual Powered Flight Day “to honor the first powered flight by the Wright brothers.” In a rewrite of the law signed by the governor in June, the Connecticut legislature erased the Wrights and awarded the historic honor to Whitehead.

“His special talents and gifts deserve recognition, particularly in his most notable achievement – being the first in flight,” Connecticut Rep. Larry Miller, the bill’s sponsor, said Wednesday by email. “In Connecticut, we felt it was important to do so as this was the home to his most momentous achievement.”

Evidence contested

Several aviation historians dismissed Brown’s photographic evidence. Two analysts published papers concluding that the blurry image was either a 1905 photo of a California glider or a picture of Whitehead’s airplane on the ground, not in the air.

“I’ve been reading about Whitehead for over 40 years,” said Tom Crouch, senior aeronautics curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, whose centerpiece exhibit is the original Wright Flyer. “I talked about him in my doctoral dissertation in 1976.

“You will never drive a stake into the heart of this one,” Crouch said. “All you can do is try to keep people informed. In a nutshell, I don’t think there is any reputable evidence to support his flight claims.”

Whitehead partisans have had unkind words for the Wrights. In presentations to Connecticut audiences this past summer, Brown said the 1903 Wright Flyer was not airworthy and that the famous 1903 Kitty Hawk photos did not actually provide evidence of sustained flight.

Smithsonian interests

The Smithsonian has drawn fire, too. Miller said a “secret contract” unearthed in 1976 showed that the Wright family had donated the original aircraft after extracting the Smithsonian’s promise to defend the brothers’ first-in-flight legacy.

“If the Smithsonian deviates from the narrative on the Wrights, they must return the plane to the Wrights’ heirs, so they have a considerable interest in refusing to do so,” Miller said.

That pledge has made it difficult to correct the historical record, he said.

Crouch said the contract stemmed from a time when some Smithsonian officials showed misguided loyalty to their own leader, who also was a Wright Brothers competitor. Samuel Pierpont Langley, then the Institution’s secretary, tried and failed to fly his own airplane in 1903.

After his death in 1906, Smithsonian officials recognized that the Wright Brothers were the first to fly – but they also maintained, for years, that Langley “had been capable of flight before them,” Crouch said.

That’s one reason why Orville Wright initially gave his prized flying machine to a museum in London instead of one in the United States. Eventually, the Smithsonian reconciled with the Wright family and received the Wright Flyer in 1948, shortly after Orville’s death. Wilbur Wright had died in 1912.

When lawyers for the Wrights’ estate insisted on a pledge that the Smithsonian would honor the brothers’ place in history, Crouch said, they had Langley’s ghost in mind.

“That contract is a reminder of a dark time in the history of the Smithsonian, when we didn’t do right by the Wright Brothers,” Crouch said. “If in fact I, as a historian and a scholar, was ever convinced that anybody had flown before the Wright Brothers, I would say so.”

Wright reconciliation

In 1986, North Carolina adopted a resolution endorsing the Wright Brothers, repudiating Whitehead and citing a quotation often attributed to 19th century showman P.T. Barnum – another son of Bridgeport: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Perales hopes to push an anti-Whitehead measure through the Ohio legislature this fall. Ohio claims on its license plates to be the “Birthplace of Aviation,” but Perales doesn’t want to quarrel with North Carolina any more.

“Who would have thought that North Carolina and Ohio could be in sync on a Wright Brothers issue?” Perales said. “We’ve always fought about who owned what. Now, we’re going to come together and put that aside.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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