October 25, 2013

North Carolina, Ohio team up to
dispute Connecticut’s first flight claim


The tale of Gustave Whitehead and his flying machine might be the zombie version of aviation history -- it was killed long ago, but it keeps coming back.

In an effort to slay Connecticut’s persistent claim that the German immigrant flew the first manned flight two years before the Wright brothers, the First Flight Foundation called its partner in all things Wright, the National Aviation Heritage Alliance of Dayton, to hold a joint press conference on Thursday with Ohio state Rep. Richard Perales and North Carolina state Sen. Bill Cook. 

“Once every few years, the Whitehead claim resurfaces and then fades away again,” Perales said from the Wright “B” Flyer hangar at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport near Dayton, speaking via Skype to reporters and Cook at Kill Devil Hills Town Hall. “We talked about letting this go, but when our fellow legislators made this law, we had to stand up.”

In June, state lawmakers in Connecticut passed a bill that proclaimed an annual Powered Flight Day “to honor the first powered flight by Gustave Whitehead.”

Whitehead reportedly flew his movable wing aircraft as high as 50 feet for nearly 2 miles over Bridgeport, Conn., on Aug. 14, 1901. Whitehead supporters, which inexplicably include aviation journal “Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft,” say there is a photograph –albeit fuzzy - to prove it.

“I don’t know about you, but I looked at this real hard,” Cook said, holding up a copy of the photograph, an indistinguishable white shadow. “I think it’s a fraud.”

There is, however, a very clear photograph of Connecticut U.S. Sen. Hiram Bingham standing next to Orville Wright at the 1928 dedication of the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Bingham, along with North Carolina Rep. Lindsay Warren, had introduced the legislation that established the park to preserve the place where flight began.

Cook, a Beaufort County Republican, said that the General Assembly had passed a joint resolution in 1985 repudiating Whitehead’s claim, and there’s no need to do it again.

“This is one of those issues that people think is so silly,” he said. “It’s almost beneath recognizing.”
Connecticut’s insistence that Whitehead deserves the credit for the first powered flight was roundly dismissed in a statement signed by 34 aviation historians and experts.

“Whitehead’s claims were rejected by local newspapers and by individuals in the best position to judge, including virtually all of those who funded his experiments,” the statement said.

“Whitehead left no letters, diaries, notebooks, calculations, or drawings recording his experiments, his thoughts, or details of his craft.”

Two men separately called into the press conference from Connecticut to disparage their state’s stand.

 “Let me apologize to the people of North Carolina and Ohio for this Wright brothers heresy,” said Carl Stindsen, a research historian associated with the New England Aviation Museum.

Stindsen, who said he was not speaking for the museum, said that the only people in Connecticut who take any of this seriously are “about 30 people in Bridgeport.”
“The vast majority of people in the great state of Connecticut don’t believe Whitehead did anything.”

Carroll Gray, the author of a scathing article about the claim published Tuesday in The Huffington Post, said that he and others are actively working to debunk Whitehead, and posed a question about tinkering with such important stories.

“Should history be overtly political like this?” Gray asked.

Cook and Perales agreed that if there were sound evidence to dispute the 1903 flight by the Wrights, they would accept it. But the history of the Wrights has stood the test of time.

“I hope that somebody in Bridgeport is listening,” Cook said, “and sees how embarrassing this is to them.”


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