Were the Wright Brothers first in flight? - WRBL

Were the Wright Brothers first in flight?

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"First in Flight." It's on North Carolina license plates. It's in history books. It's even on North Carolina quarters. But there is a movement by a different state to give another man credit for being first in flight.

People from all over the world travel to Kitty Hawk, N.C., just to see the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It stands on the spot where the brothers made their famous flight on a Dec. 17, 1903.

"They literally taught the world to fly and they ushered in the age of flight," said Darrell Scott, a historian at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. "Every little kid that comes to Wright Brothers National Memorial, they look at the Wright Brothers as true heroes to them."

But Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill this year declaring a man named Gustav Whitehead as first in flight.

Connecticut Rep. Larry Miller introduced the legislation recognizing Whitehead for his flight two years before the Wright Brothers. Miller represents the area in Connecticut where Whitehead made his flights.

"This is just something that we feel is history, and it should be recorded correctly," Miller said. "If we have documentation that Whitehead was the first to fly, we're going to make sure that our state recognizes that fact."

Historian John Brown started searching digital archives for information about Whitehead's flight about a year and a half ago. He found articles from as far away as Australia and Indonesia discussing Whitehead's flight.

"It was a world-wide news event, which makes me very curious how did the world, how did historians miss this? It's a huge thing.

"I looked even deeper and saw 17 witness statements from people who actually saw Whitehead flying before 1903," Brown said. "The Wrights were very significant in early aviation, but sorry, they were not first."

Claims coming from Connecticut have brought together two unlikely partners - lawmakers from North Carolina and Ohio.

Ohio, the birth place of the Wright Brothers, claims to be the birthplace of aviation. North Carolina and Ohio have long been bitter rivals when claiming the brothers.

North Carolina Sen. Bill Cook said he has reviewed the evidence and finds Connecticut's claims laughable.

"This Gustav thing is an aberration. It's a silly aberration. I think some folks made a silly mistake," Cook said.

President of the First in Flight Foundation Will Plentl helped push to have the slogan on North Carolina license plates and knows the story well. He said experts on the birth of aviation do not agree on the situation.

"For someone to change history, they have to have the facts and documentation to back it up. The majority of the experts, more or less, have to agree. In this situation, that's not the case," Plentl said. 

Jane's All the World's Aircraft is a respected aviation publication that supports the Whitehead theory. But most historians that have weighed in on the subject do not.

The Estate of Orville Wright signed a contract with the Smithsonian giving the 1903 flyer to the museum with the stipulation that the government not label an earlier plane as capable of powered flight.

The Smithsonian calls the contract "a less than exemplary moment" in its history. Brown thinks the contract is an "abomination."

"The question is if the Wright Brothers really flew first, why would they need a secret contract?" Brown said.

About 500,000 people visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial every year.

"They've got a goldmine down there at Kitty Hawk and certainly we're not asking anybody to change anything," Miller said. "In Connecticut, we're going to recognize Gustav Whitehead as the first guy in flight."

Some in North Carolina think Connecticut is turning its back on its own history.

A photo taken in 1928 shows the unveiling of the stone marker honoring the Wright Brothers flight. In the photo stands Orville Wright, Amelia Earhart and Sen. Hiram Bingam from Connecticut.

Bingham wrote the bill which was signed by President Calvin Coolidge March 2, 1927, establishing the marker as a national monument to honor the Wright Brothers' achievement.

American history will always be able to claim first flight but Brown believes history will come to claim Whitehead as first.

"Ultimately it will end up in the Whitehead camp and North Carolina can keep its number plate, saying ‘We developed the first practical airplane, the best of the early airplanes.' I don't see a beat-down side for North Carolina," Brown said.

The National Park Service recognizes the Wright Brothers story as fact so it would take an act of Congress to change history as it is known.

North Carolina lawmakers passed a resolution in 1985 naming the Wright Brothers as first and specifically dismissing Whitehead. Cook said there is no need for the state to pass further legislation to solidify North Carolina as first in flight.


Justin Quesinberry

Justin is a reporter for WNCN and a North Carolina native. He has spent the better part of the last decade covering the news in central North Carolina.  More>>

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