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Gustave Whitehead and his daughter and plane.

Gustave Whitehead, above with his daughter Rose, is believed by some aviation historians to have preceeded the Wright brothers by as much as three years with a manned flight.

Photograph from Corbis

Jarret Liotta

for National Geographic News

Published May 3, 2013

An iconic piece of American history took a nosedive when the 100th-anniversary issue of an annual aviation bible known as Jane's All the World's Aircraft displaced the Wright brothers as the first fathers of flight.

The new name in town is Gustave Whitehead, a German-born inventor many have long believed took to the air more than two years before Orville and Wilbur even left the ground at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.

But while new research from an Australian aviation expert convinced Jane's editors it was time to update the books, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.—home to the original Wright Flyer—remains skeptical about Whitehead's work, which it views as mostly myth. The Aeronautics Division's senior curator—author and Wright expert Dr. Tom Crouch—believes Jane's was "hoodwinked."

Still, longtime Whitehead supporters are elated about the latest development. Many think the Smithsonian's indebtedness to the Wrights' legacy—which it even holds in contract with the brothers' heirs—prevents the institution from acknowledging the indisputable facts of Whitehead's pioneering work.

John Brown's Research

John Brown, an Australian flight historian, was responsible for swaying Jane's. Ironically, it was while researching a documentary on "flying cars" for the Smithsonian Channel—and working directly with Crouch—that Brown came across a large amount of previously overlooked data on Whitehead.

"There were a huge number of discoveries," Brown said, including newspaper accounts stating that Whitehead may have been flying as early as 1897—six years before the Wright brothers. "The history of Whitehead needs to be completely rewritten," Brown asserted.

He also believes that photographic enhancements confirm that a long-missing picture of Whitehead actually flying his plane in Fairfield, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901—a lithograph of which was published at that time in the Bridgeport Herald—can be seen on the wall of an aviation exhibit in a 1906 photo taken by William Hammer.

That photo is, in fact, part of the Smithsonian's Hammer Collection archives. Brown said he was denied access to it. But he enhanced a print of it he discovered at the Aviation Pioneer Gustav Weisskopf Museum in the aviator's hometown of Leutershausen, Germany (where Whitehead was born Gustav Weisskopf).

"It's a very simple open-and-shut case, really," said Brown, who's currently in Germany preparing a documentary on the life of Whitehead.

"The issue is: Did Gustave Whitehead fly or didn't he fly? Did he have the means? Did he have the motive?"

Brown calls it "indisputable," based on the man's professional background in aeronautics, the documented evidence of the number of airplane motors Whitehead created and sold, affidavits signed by eyewitnesses who saw him fly, newspaper accounts, and more.

Questionable Contract

Around 1914, the Smithsonian gave aviation history a black eye when it declared Samuel Pierpont Langley, one-time secretary of the museum, to be the first person to build a successful flying machine.

Oddly enough, Langley was already dead at that point, but the museum's then director Charles Walcott—a close friend—attempted to bring him posthumous recognition by having his failed airplane design reconstructed (and soundly reinforced) so it could be successfully test-flown.

When the museum named Langley as the first to create a flying machine, Orville—the surviving brother—had the Wright Flyer sent to London instead, where it remained on display at the Science Museum until after his death early in 1948.

The family had the Wright Flyer moved to the Smithsonian at the end of 1948, but not before insisting that a contract be drawn up naming the brothers as the undisputed first in flight. The contract specifically states that, should the Smithsonian recognize anyone else as being first—or having built a flying machine before the brothers did—the family will promptly remove the Flyer from the museum.

Family Values

Amanda Wright Lane, the brothers' great grandniece, said the contract provided necessary leverage to keep the Smithsonian from relegating the Wright Flyer to the back of the museum behind Langley's craft.

"When they asked the Wright family and Orville for the flying machine, they said, 'We'd be happy to hang it right behind the Aerodrome as Number Two,'"—something, she added, that many recent news accounts critical about the contract fail to mention.

"I think the Wright family has always tried to deal with integrity, and I would hope the same of the Smithsonian," she said, referencing accusations that the family holds the Smithsonian hostage with regard to keeping its display intact.

"If it ever came to light that there is more proof [of Whitehead being first], for me personally, I would hope that the real truth would come out. I think, as the nation's historians, it would be the Smithsonian's job to make sure they are representing our history with integrity. But for now I cannot find anything that disproves any of the Wright brothers' work or claims. I just haven't seen it."

Jane's Word

Jane's All the World's Aircraft believes otherwise. Paul Jackson, the publication's freelance editor, wrote about the Wrights' pioneering success several years ago. "I now believe I was wrong," he said, "and happy to admit to such, thanks to John's research."

Jackson said he adopted an engineer's approach to considering the issue—weighing Whitehead's expertise, engine developments, and the feasibility of his design.

"Too many debates about Whitehead have been kicked into the long grass by diversionary wrangling over whether this or that witness was reliable," he said. "On the engineering facts alone, I am professionally convinced that the Whitehead aircraft was capable of flight."

At the same time, in his foreward to the Jane's anniversary issue, Jackson highlights the value of Bridgeport Herald editor Richard Howell's claim to have witnessed—and his having written about—that first flight. Jackson also noted that the reproduction of that singular photograph (most likely of poor quality owing to the early morning light) was logical.

"Such substitution was common newspaper practice," Jackson wrote in Jane's, "and, indeed, producing exactly this type of engraved image was [founder] Fred Jane's first known employment."

Credit Where It's Due

Skeptics say this one vivid account of Whitehead's flight is not factual, and that many other newspapers simply reprinted the story without confirmation.

"I don't like to bash Whitehead," Crouch said. "Anybody who was interested in aviation that early, and was actually building things that early, deserves some credit. It's just that he doesn't deserve credit for having made the first flight, and he certainly doesn't deserve credit for inventing the airplane."

Crouch, who has spent much of his career researching and writing about the Wrights, said the Whitehead controversy reemerges "every 20 years, like clockwork," yet never with—in his opinion—definitive evidence to rewrite history.

Crouch also discounts the testimony of witnesses who claimed to see Whitehead flying, as well as signed affidavits stating that the Wrights visited Whitehead's shop several months before their first flight and essentially plagiarized many of his methods and tools.

One eyewitness—an employee of Whitehead's named Anton Pruckner—swore that the brothers visited Whitehead's shop and "left here with a great deal of information."

Crouch said that such testimony—which came decades later—was inaccurate, gathered by prejudiced investigators who influenced statements. "The Wrights never went to Bridgeport to visit Gus Whitehead," Crouch said. "There is a 200-page chronology of where the Wright brothers were day by day. They weren't there."

Darker Halls of History

Crouch also objects to conspiracy theories surrounding the suppression of Whitehead's work, including claims by author Stella Randolph, who wrote two biographies, and, later, William O'Dwyer, who co-wrote Randolph's third book called History by Contract, referencing the Smithsonian-Wright agreement.

"My dad continually sparred with the Smithsonian historians, who would neverand can never—recognize Whitehead as first to fly, as the contract forbids it," said Susan O'Dwyer Brinchman.

In fact, she said, the contract came to light only after then Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut obtained a copy through the Freedom of Information Act. Up till then, she said, her father and others were told the contract didn't even exist.

Brinchman said that during the 50 years he spent investigating Whitehead's history, her father was often "harassed." At one time his phone was tapped, and once a U.S. military official warned him that he could end up in jail for being too vocal about Whitehead.

"There's a dark side to this story," she said, which is why historians across the country are hesitant to second-guess an institution like the Smithsonian. "If you anger the Smithsonian, that's like angering God," she said. "You can be blackballed for life and mistreated."

Now What?

This hasn't stopped John Brown from escalating his criticisms of Crouch and the Smithsonian. He continues to charge that the abundance of evidence supporting Whitehead's case is not being objectively evaluated, and that Crouch has "pretty much evaded the point on every question that's been raised."

Further, he said, scrutiny is being more aggressively applied to Whitehead than it ever was to the Wrights, whose famous photo of their first flight is still held in question in some circles, in part because it wasn't released until five years after the fact.

But since the Wright brothers were first to establish themselves as the forefathers of flight, the burden of proof will always lie with Whitehead supporters.

Following the brouhaha arising from the Jane's announcement—as well as an increasing amount of heated public correspondence between Brown and Crouch—the Smithsonian has extended an offer to Brown to come and examine the original pivotal photo in the Hammer Collection, which Crouch said Brown never asked to see in the first place.

Brown intends to jump at the chance, and he plans to bring a film crew. If there's a holy grail for Whitehead supporters, it's that photo.

Meanwhile, in Bridgeport, someone damaged the base of a statue dedicated to Whitehead, and there are those who believe it was no accident.

As far as this controversy is concerned, the next chapter is still up in the air.

Carroll Gray
Carroll Gray

The article states "the Smithsonian has extended an offer to Brown to come and examine the original pivotal photo in the Hammer Collection, which Crouch said Brown never asked to see in the first place.

Brown intends to jump at the chance, and he plans to bring a film crew. If there's a holy grail for Whitehead supporters, it's that photo."

Since the above National Geographic article was written, I have identified the "holy grail" Whitehead photo as a John J. Montgomery glider - the "California" - and the photo as one taken in May of 1905 at San Jose, California.

Brown's utterly erroneous conclusion that the photo shows Whitehead in flight is proven wrong on my Whitehead web site, in the following article...

Please do come see for yourself how wrong Mr. Brown is about this "discovery" - this "holy grail"...

There are over two-dozen articles posted on my Whitehead web site which demonstrate how mistaken Whitehead's supporters are and have been about his efforts.

Joseph Massucco
Joseph Massucco

I've always been suspicious of Wright's claim. How many people would think to "happen" to have a movie camera there to capture their flight.

I'm amazed that no one ever mentions John Montgomery's pioneering work in aviation. Montgomery, a Physics professor at the University of Santa Clara (California) made the first CONTROLLED glider flight in the United States. The flight controls he invented were LATER used by the Wright brothers in their first flight (they knew of his invention, but did not credit him). There is some evidence that Montgomery equipped one of his gliders with a small engine and flew it before the Wrights.

Another pre-Wright flyer was Richard Pearce of New Zealand. Apparently, Pearse flew a powered heavier-than-air machine for some 3 minutes on March 31, 1903, and successfully landed landeded it. This was some nine months before the Wright brothers flew their aircraft. A model of this airplane can be seen in the Museum of History and Technology (MOTAT).

Joseph Massucco
Joseph Massucco

I'm amazed that Montgomery of California never receives any credit for his pioneering work in aviation (he taught Physics at the University of Santa Clara). He invented the flight controls that the Wright brothers later used in their flight. There is even some evidence that (besides his pioneering glider flights) he made a powered flight before the brothers. According to Wikipedia, "In 1884 Montgomery, a native of Yuba City, CA, is said to have made the first manned, controlled, heavier-than-air flights in the United States."

There is also a possibility that in New Zealand Richard Pearse flew and landed a powered heavier-than-air machine on 31 March 1903, some nine months before the Wright brothers

Ron Trom
Ron Trom

There are reproductions of the original Wright Flyer that have been built and flown.

The Whitehead supporters have had over 100 years to build a reproduction and fly it.  Where is it?  As the saying goes:"'put up or shut up". 

Dan Richards
Dan Richards

Looking at the plane there, it would be hard to see something like that having the strength of the wings to hold the weight. If you would look and research, the Write Brothers had much stronger wings on their crafts. I feel those wings would collapse on him, just like one footage of a craft like this crashing on the old movie footage.

Maxwell Bancroft
Maxwell Bancroft

His aeroplane  looks somewhat like an early form of  powered hang glider.   The tyranny of distance and primitive telecommunications in Australia way back in the early 1900s  prevented his invention receiving acknowledgement in the world press whereas the Wright Bros in the USA were better connected in that regard. 

No doubt he had help with the design from Lawrence Hargrave of Box Kite fame.

Don Barr
Don Barr

I think the Wright Bros still get the nod for "controlled, powered flight".  If you look at the picture of Whiteheads' machine, it is hard to visualize it doing anything but flying in a straight line if he managed to generate enough power to get off the ground.

I guess the proof would be somebody building Whitehead's flyer and giving it a try!

E Beck
E Beck

This reminds me of another who's-first? controversy of some years ago, regarding Gabriel Voisin of France. The bullet-proof evidence is always hard to secure, especially after 100+ years having transpired.

While it wouldn't secure Whitehead's proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, the technology exists that could allow a very close replica of Whitehead's plane to be built. It would be interesting to see if it -could- fly, strictly using the materials then known to exist for the construction of heavier-than-air craft.

Susan B.
Susan B.

Regarding the Smithsonian-Wright contract - it needs to be "dumped" by all Parties, as it is hindering inquiry, even if this was not the original intention. In fact, the Contract requires Smithsonian to credit Orville as first to fly, which he was not, of the two brothers. Wilbur's flight, the last one, was the only one with power and control on Dec. 17th, 1903, according to all records of the era. After Wilbur (the most celebrated brother) died, Orville wanted recognition and he got it, but at the expense of truth. For many reasons the Contract must be dispensed with. If the Wrights flew first, there is no need for it, and if  they didn't fly first, there is also no need for it. Smithsonian is acting inappropriately due to the Contract, of this I am certain, after 50 years of watching them on this topic. Reject and annull the contract, either or all Parties!

Susan B.
Susan B.

Whitehead flew several years before the Wrights in at least one, and reportedly more than one plane of his own design. He was not after fame for flying first, but wanted to perfect what he and others of his time considered to be a practical airplane, one that would take off and land like a Harrier. He was without the continuos resources that the Wrights were able to find, and was limited in the years after 1902 to sponsor's designs. What we can credit Whitehead with is having the vision and genius to design, build, and fly a powered aeroplane of his own design, with his own engines, for distances of at least 1/2 mile, returning to land where he took off, or at designated points. We can credit him for sharing what he learned, openly, even saying that he hoped it would help others working on solutions to flight - including the Wrights. He had developed a system of wing-warping that worked for his planes, prior to 1903. His lightweight, powerful engines flew his own plane designs and some of others. For all this he should receive credit, where credit is long overdue.

Gregory S.
Gregory S.

This might be a better way to unuderstand this problem. There is an old question that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? There is also the scientific concept of reproducibility. As early engines were becoming lighter and stronger, and materials more lightweight the threshold geenrating enough lift was getting closer. At this point of time success would have become dependent on conditions on the ground moreso than other factors such as wing design, weight of the aircraft, and the engine power. In this window of time successful test flights were likely incosistent and not always reproducible. Only when the test flights showed a consitent string of  successes would enough attention be generated for the mass media to witness the events and for someone to announce a discovery. The Wright brothers were the first to reach this threshold of attracting the kind of attention needed for their discovery to be realized by the public and this was clearly because they solved many more problems that enbled them  to consistently reproduce their work so that more witnesses were around to see it.

Gregory S.
Gregory S.

I find it hard to understand why this controversy matters. I look at this at an evolution of flight not just a simple question of who was first to fly. I look at the earliest inventors as working to solve the problem of generating enough lift for the aircraft and a number of inventors had various degrees of success working at this problem. The Wright brothers, as an earlier post alluded to, did not just work on and solve this problem, but many more at the same time, taking several more steps on the evolutionary path towards controlled flight. This is the distinction that sets them well apart from the earlier tinkerers and is quite worthy of the acclaim they receive.  I think if everyone simply looked more rationally at the question, the need to cite controversy about the importance of what these early pioneers did seems all ego-driven and quite silly.

Wayne Davis
Wayne Davis

As the article notes, this nonsense resurfaces every few years to grab some headlines. What many do not understand is the Wright brothers (my great grand uncles) did much more than just invent the first airplane. When they had mysterious problems with their glider experiments, they built a wind tunnel to test various configurations for wings and propellers. They discovered that much of the data in aeronautical tables of the day were wrong, so they created new tables based on their own testing. When they could not find an engine light enough with sufficient power, they built their own.

The true genius of the Wright brothers was first the realization that for successful sustained flight, aircraft have to be controlled in all three axes (pitch, roll and yaw), and then the creation of systems for that control. No one else invented that.

The revelation of a supposed "secret" agreement with the Smithsonian makes for juicy conspiracy theories, claiming the Smithsonian lies to keep the Wright Flyer in their collection. The truth, as Amanda Wright noted, is much simpler. After decades of the Smithsonian falsely claiming their own secretary Langley invented the airplane, the Wright family was taking no chances that the Smithsonian might later relegate Orville and Wilbur to "also rans" in aviation history.

Antonio Cavalcanti Martins
Antonio Cavalcanti Martins

Please, we are all missing the Brazilian engineer Alberto Santos Dumont, who flew over Paris before anyone.The history of aviation must be completed outside US.

Tim Marugg
Tim Marugg

I'm not buying it. Where is the pitch control surface? Where is the wing-warping yaw /bank control? Where are the airfoil props? The Wrights had all that, and their own force-balance and wind tunnel to correct the mistakes in Otto Lilienthals published airfoil data. I would be astonished if someone actually made a controllable, flyable aircraft based on this photograph.

Edwin Moorman
Edwin Moorman

Look, a lot of people flew or claimed to have flown before the Wrights. Actually, The Wright Flier 1 was not that much of a plane. Skip forward a few years and no one else has made any reputable claims of flying. Then came the Flier 3. As I recall, Orville took it to the Army and Wilbur went to France. Not only did they fly, they did the required circles and figure 8s and they took on passengers.

I can hear Wilbur speaking to a Frenchman, "Glad you liked the flight. Do you want a ride? Oh, by the way, our first airplane flew in 1903." 

End of story. Earlier planes made hops. The Flier 3 stayed up a long time and carried a passenger. It was, no question, the first real practical airplane. He who publishes first and gets the patent... well, you know.

Howard Moon
Howard Moon

It's Gustave Whitehead, not Jane's All the World's Aircraft, who has displaced the Wright brothers "as the first fathers [sic] of flight." The first paragraph needs to be corrected.

Hikaru Sulu
Hikaru Sulu

That lawn mower with bat wings would only fly if shot out of a canon. I can't see how it could be steered, no flaps, no tail. Even if you could get airbourne you can't control it. Is there a better picture?

B. Strandberg
B. Strandberg

@Maxwell Bancroft 

The supposed flight WAS in the US, not Australia.  And Connecticut is a lot closed to the main press of the day than either North Carolina or Dayton, Ohio.

B. Strandberg
B. Strandberg

@Susan B.  Would like to see the proof that the Smithsonian is acting in any way to prevent the true story of the first flight.  And, I would also like to see your proof about only the fourth flight being under control. 

Davis Sanders
Davis Sanders

@Antonio MartinsSantos Dumont flew a dirigible in Paris, not an airplane. He did not fly a fixed wing aircraft until 1906-three full years after the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.Sorry, but the airplane was invented in the U.S. Deal with it.

Maxwell Bancroft
Maxwell Bancroft

@Hikaru Sulu Powered hang gliders do not have flaps or a tail. the plane is steered by shifting the center of gravity of the pilot

Marcos Mattoso
Marcos Mattoso

@Davis Sanders @Antonio Martins Well, the Wright brothers plane was not able to take off by itself, it had to be catapulted to fly. Santos Dumont was the first person who flew a heavier-than-air machine which could autonomously lift itself from the ground. THAT is an airplane. Deal with it.

Victor Critelli
Victor Critelli

@Marcos Mattoso @Davis Sanders @Antonio MartinsSorry, Davis, but you are misinformed. Santos Dumont did fly a dirigible in Paris, but he also flew an airplane on October 23rd, 2006 (as you can see in the link:  which was certified as the first heavier-than-air self-propelled flight, meaning with its own engine, not catapulted, as the Wright Brothers did as late as 1908, as you can see in the link: They invented magnificent gliders, but only later on they were able to put an engine on them and make those things really fly by themselves. By the way, this information is only for the record, just something that should have been out there all the way from the get go, doing justice to everyone who worked on such an important invention. And no, gliders are not considered airplanes for that matter. It seems to me that the Wright Brothers were way more concerned about the patent deal than Santos Dumont. He never cared about that. And since we're on the patent subject, Santos Dumont ordered Cartier to make him a wrist watch so he could see the time without having to pull his watch out of his pocket, since his hands were too busy flying the balloon. Guess who got the credit for it?

Bruce Cameron
Bruce Cameron

Baby steps friend. Their fourth and final flight of the day traveled 852 feet; the time of the flight was 59 seconds. Remember; they were doing something no one had done before, therefore caution was required while gaining useful experience. It's what we call "The learning curve".


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