The continuing controversy over history's first aviator

In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first flight of a manned, powered, controllable aircraft. In 1948, the Smithsonian Institution bought that same aircraft, the Wright Flyer, from the Wright estate. But the purchase contract has a strange clause in it: it stipulates that the Smithsonian can assume ownership of the plane so long as it never recognizes anyone else as flying before the Wright brothers did. The very existence of this clause begs the question of who might have flown first, and the answer is Gustave Whitehead, a German-born inventor who claims to have made the first flight in 1901.

The Wright/Whitehead debate first emerged in 1937, and has become one of aviation history's enduring controversies. It’s back in the news this year, as Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, the longest-running annually published aviation reference manual, has officially recognized Whitehead’s achievement, putting the Wright brothers in second place.

The Wright Brothers

At the heart of the history of flight, or at least the history that most of us know, are two brothers from Dayton, Ohio: Orville and Wilbur Wright. In 1894, the Wrights succumbed to the bicycle craze sweeping the nation and opened a business repairing (and selling) bicycles. What began as a way to supplement their relatively meager income from jobs as newspaper printers became a full-time occupation within two years. The brothers had a knack for bicycles, building and manufacturing their own models as The Wright Cycle Company.

At the same time, newspapers were full of accounts of daring men trying (and generally failing) to take to the skies in homemade aircraft. In reading about these aviation exploits, the Wrights noticed that all the primitive aircraft lacked decent control systems, something that they, as bicycle manufacturers, thought about all the time. And so the Wrights started applying what they knew about bicycles to airplanes. Wilbur started fooling with designs first: he developed a simple system that warped an aircraft’s wings, allowing it to turn. The brothers tested the design as a kite first, then as a glider.

This was the beginning of the Wright’s aviation side-project. They built a wind tunnel in the back of their bicycle shop to test wing shapes and configurations. They found a perfect test area at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the United States Weather Bureau promised reliable winds and a convenient lack of vegetation. The Wrights’ first glider flights at Kitty Hawk in 1900 and 1901 uncovered flaws in their design, so they refined their glider and, towards the end of their 1902 flying season, had a fully controllable unpowered aircraft in hand. Building off this design, the brothers, with the help of mechanic Charlie Taylor, spent the winter of 1902-1903 developing a lightweight gasoline engine that could take their glider design and turn it into a powered aircraft. On December 17, 1903, the powered airplane took to the skies, and this is the iconic moment that we all hear about:

The historic Wright brothers' first flight on December 17, 1903

Gustave Whitehead

But there’s another early aviator who some believe beat the Wrights into the sky: Gustave Weisskopf, who changed his name to the anglicized 'Whitehead' when he immigrated to America in the 1890s. Whitehead was a visionary who anticipated the importance of air travel long before commercial flight became a worldwide travel staple for businesses. He envisioned a future with roadable aircraft. Not the flying cars that have become a sci-fi staple, but rather cars to which a driver could add wings to turn them into small commuter planes.

Whitehead’s roadable aircraft could be stored in a garage like an ordinary car. The owner, a traveling businessman or anyone needing to make long commutes on a regular basis, could drive the vehicle as a car until he arrived at a suitable field. There, he could either assemble or unfold the wings to turn his car into a plane, using the field as a runway to fly off to his meeting. He’d land in a similar field near the site of his appointment and drive the rest of the way.

Whitehead built his aircraft "No. 21" (also called the Condor) after this model. He fitted the roadable aircraft with two separate acetylene-fueled engines; a 10 horsepower engine for driving and a 20 horsepower engine as the main flying engine. Once in the air, flipping a switch would redirect the 10 hp engine from driving controls to flying, helping to power the aircraft’s twin propellers.

Early on the morning of August 14, 1901, Whitehead took the Condor (in car form) down the dark streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Fairfield, about 15 miles outside of the city. He assembled the wings, climbed into the driver’s seat, and proceeded to make two demonstration flights. On the second, he covered a mile and a half at a height of about 50 feet, and made precise turns in both directions. Whitehead followed the Condor’s flights with another demonstration flight on January 22, 1902. This aircraft, No. 22, which was built after the same design as the Condor, demonstrated maneuverability and navigation as it flew in a circular course over the shallows between Charles Island and Bridgeport.

Whitehead, with daughter Rose in his lap, and his Aircraft No. 21 in 1901

Records of Whitehead’s Flights

This account of Whitehead’s flights has surface from time to time over the last century, most recently courtesy of Australian aviation historian John Brown, who has created a website dedicated to giving Whitehead his due. It’s a compelling story, one that’s convinced Paul Jackson, the current editor of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, that Whitehead does indeed deserve credit for making the first flight.

And there are other records of Whitehead’s flights. One of the guests he invited to watch his 1901 flight was a reporter from the Bridgeport Herald. A story of the flight appeared in the paper on August 14, accompanied by a lithograph image based on a photograph of the Condor in flight. The article was republished around the world, and the photograph was exhibited in museums in 1904 and 1906. And there was an even larger audience at Whitehead’s second flight: at least 17 people saw the precision flying of his N0. 22 aircraft.

So why don’t we hear about Whitehead? Jackson holds that the Wrights simply eclipsed their contemporaries. Once they got in the air, they refined their design to fly farther, higher, and with increased control. There’s also the legacy of the Wrights’ Flyer: their design had all the characteristics of modern aircraft, while Whitehead’s design has virtually no echoes in modern aircraft. Jackson also argues that Whitehead aligned himself with all the wrong people, picking as patrons men who stood in the way of Whitehead advancing his flightworthy designs.

And of course there’s the matter of the Smithsonian contract: "the Smithsonian shall [not state] any aircraft... earlier than the Wright aeroplane of 1903... was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight." This clause does suggest that the leading public body of aviation history and records is beholden to the Wright estate to maintain the story that the Wrights flew first.

The Wright Flyer on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Wrights Victorious

When Orville Wright heard about Whitehead’s flight, he called the story a hoax. And the Smithsonian Institution seems to agree. The museum’s current chief aviation historian, Tom Crouch, points specifically to Whitehead’s inconsistency as evidence that his claims of flight are likely false. For example, there are records of Whitehead showing a reporter from the New York Herald two different aircraft in 1897. One was a triple hang glider with stretched wings and the other a bird-inspired design with frail wings. These bird-like wings featured on the Condor as well as aircraft No. 22, the two aircraft that brought Whitehead such stunning success.

However, within two years Whitehead had abandoned this design and returned to the triplane hang glider, a shift that begs the question of why Whitehead abandoned a working design so soon after his success. There are also records of Whitehead building airplanes for other aviation enthusiasts in the decade after his supposed flights, but no records of any of these vehicles ever successfully flying. Crouch also questions the validity of the news articles about Whitehead’s flights, as well as the inventor’s decision not to seek a larger audience.

As for the contract between the Wright estate and the Smithsonian, it doesn't end with the order that the museum never recognize another as flying first. It goes on to say that if reasonable evidence ever emerges to suggest another airplane and inventor flew before the Wright brothers, the Wright estate holds the right to buy back the Wright flyer and display it as they see fit. The contract isn't dictating how history is told, the Smithsonian has just never found any reason to change commonly accepted history. Yet.

The Wright/Whitehead controversy is interesting, but more as an historical curiosity than as a question worth trying to answer. Unfortunately, aviation emerged in an era of often imperfect reporting and scant photographic record, so it’s likely we’ll never have a definitive answer on who was first into the air.

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