US state passes bill saying pilot Gustave Whitehead beat Wright brothers to first flight

Connecticut legislators pass bill saying German American beat flight at Kitty Hawk by two years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 9:23pm


Connecticut's leading role in aviation has never been disputed, but legislators have now passed a bill insisting that an aviator from the US state flew two years before the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, in the state of North Carolina.

The measure is the latest twist in an effort to credit the first successful aircraft flight to German-born aviator Gustave Whitehead.

All we’re trying to do is correct history. There’s nothing in it for us

The legislation is a flight of fancy, say Wright brothers partisans. Governor Dannel Malloy has not committed to signing the legislation, but will review it when it reaches his desk.

The bill honours what it calls the first powered flight by Whitehead in 1901, "rather than the Wright brothers". Whitehead is credited by some for the first flight in August 1901. The Wright brothers lifted off from North Carolina in December 1903.

"We want to correct something that should have been corrected long ago," said state Representative Larry Miller, who spearheaded the legislation. "All we're trying to do is correct history. There's nothing in it for us."

Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which displays Wilbur and Orville Wright's plane at the National Air and Space Museum, said Whitehead's backers are "absolutely wrong".

"Whitehead's legend has spawned much speculation and hearsay," he said. "People who have looked at this over the years ... almost unanimously reject the claim."

Connecticut has a long and storied history in aviation. Aircraft engines were made at Pratt and Whitney in East Hartford from 1925, and a desk used by pilot Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo non-stop Atlantic crossing, is on display at the jet engine manufacturer. And famed helicopter maker Igor Sikorsky set up shop in Stratford in 1929 to make seaplanes.

A recent burst of interest in Whitehead followed a documentary by an Australian historian, John Brown. In addition, Whitehead "research committees" in the US and Germany have stoked interest. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, an influential industry publication, recently cited contemporary news accounts in concluding that Whitehead did indeed beat the Wright brothers into the air.

Andrew Kosch, a high school science teacher, said he has been working 30 years to promote Whitehead's achievement. He lobbied the legislature and even persuaded a restaurant in Fairfield, Connecticut, to name an omelette the No21, for the plane Whitehead flew.

Kosch said the aviator is well known in Connecticut for flying before the Wright brothers and the world now needs to know it.

"How can you prove someone didn't fly? That's what the Smithsonian is trying to do," he said.

He and Miller said the Smithsonian is forbidden by a contract with the executors of the Wright brothers' estate to admit that anyone else was the first to fly.

Crouch conceded that the Smithsonian signed a contract with two heirs of the Wright brothers' estate in 1948, after the brothers' deaths. The heirs insisted on the provision, he said, because they fought a fraudulent claim of early flights for 20 years.

But it didn't change what he said was the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright operated the first heavier-than-air machine.

"What they achieved changed the face of the world," he said. "They were the ones who took those final steps. They deserve the credit for it."