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Who Was First? The Wrights or Whitehead?

Who Was First? The Wrights or Whitehead?

Here it comes again: the Great Who Flew First Debate. This time it is courtesy of Jane’s All the World Aircraft, considered to be one of the world’s encyclopedic, not-to-be-doubted sources of aviation information and their radical shift in which they de-throne the Wright Brothers and enshrine Gustav Whitehead as the first to achieve powered flight.

Flight Journal, from its inception in 1996, has been active in presenting the various sides of that argument and we are about to do it again. In 1998, Bill O’Dwyer, one of our best historical writers and experts penned a piece that chronicled the Whitehead claims and we’re presenting it here in its entirety.

In an effort at maintaining a neutral position, we’re also printing the essay from Dr. Tom Crouch, the Smithsonian’s Aeronautics Curator, which the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum issued as their official statement on the subject.

Also below, you’ll find a detailed e-mail from historical investigator John Brown, who unearthed the information/proof on which Jane’s based their changed of first flight attribution.

Inasmuch as this is a continuing controversy, with rapid communication between the two sides of the argument, additional information will be posted here, as it comes in. Also, in the near future, we’ll be posting other O’Dwyer articles that bear on this subject and add additional information.

Do we now have incontrovertible proof that Whitehead flew two years before the Wrights? Maybe. But, we’ll continue to post both positions and let you make up your own mind whether we change the history books based on the available information.

Budd Davisson, Editor-in-Chief
Flight Journal

Read the Bill O’Dwyer article here

The Flight Claims of Gustave Whitehead
By Tom Crouch, Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum

John Brown, an Australian researcher living in Germany, has unveiled a website claiming that Gustave Whitehead (January 1, 1874-October 10, 1927), a native of Leutershausen, Bavaria, who immigrated to the United States, probably in 1894, made a sustained powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine on August 14, 1901, two years before the Wright brothers. The standard arguments in favor of Whitehead’s flight claims were first put forward in a book published in 1937, and have been restated many times. With a new wave of interest in the Whitehead claims, the time has come for a fresh look.
What are the claims?

I am the historian who uncovered a photo of Mr. Whitehead in powered flight in 1901: http://www.gustave-whitehead.com/history/detailed-photo-analysis/

Click here to read the letter

An Open Letter to Dr. Tom Crouch, Smithsonian Institute, From John Brown, Whitehead Advocate
John Brown wrote an “open letter” to Dr. Tom Crouch, the Smithsonian’s Curator of Aeronautics concerning the Smithsonian’s stance on the Wrights and a contract that supposedly that exists between them and the Wright heirs.

Dear Tom,
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my writings about Gustave Whitehead in a Smithsonian press release, click here to read the letter

Dr. Crouch Responds to John Brown
John Brown:

This is in reply to your widely distributed, ”Open letter to Tom Crouch,” posted on March 24, 2013. I will make this as clear and concise as I can, addressing what seem to be your major points. Click here to read the letter

A New Player, New Demands
The daughter of FJ writer William O’Dwyer, Sue Brinchman, has taken up the cause of her father, i.e. to establish Whitehead as the first to fly and is demanding that the Smitshonian be forced to invalidate the above mentioned contract. Click here to read the letter

Updated: June 5, 2013 — 11:24 AM


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  1. Of course the Wrights were first without a doubt. If Whitehead had flown, which he didn’t, why did he not continue to build powered airplanes? Why did he go back to building gliders? Would you be able to fly any airplane for a mile without any experience or training? All of the information about Whitehead is always prefixed with “maybe”, “could have” or some other caveat. I can’t believe that one fuzzy picture is proof that it flew. Some years later the person that was said to have seen him fly couldn’t remember it. I suggest you read “The Letters and Paper of Wilbur and Orville Wright”.
    Hey Bud. I have my brother’s log book which says you were with him when you did your first loop.

  2. Thsi is a dumb debate. First, if Whitehead was indeed first to fly a heavier than air craft, why did he not continue his development? Where are the advances that surely would have been forth coming? Why did no one else take up his research and continue? Why was the Wright aircraft the one that set the benchmark for future development? If Lincoln Beachey had been the “successful” developer of such a craft would we not have evidence of the breakthroughs that were and are still attributed to the Wright machine? I think it is evident that many had been able to make a heavier than air machine leave the ground but to what end? Was the machine “controllable” as was the design goals in the Wright attempts? Spare me the “maybes” and the aliens from outer space theories. If it is true that the Whitehead machine could indeed fly, why not build one and show me it is, or was, as capable as Wright’s, then maybe I’ll have to take a closer look. As of now I will stay with the one that brought me to the dance. She’s clean, honest, and good looking. That Greek guy that flew too close to the sun was also flying a heavier than air machine but it didn’t work out very well for him even though he may have been the first!

  3. I heard the Smithsonian gave Bleriot credit for the first flight until after WW2. They finally relented to the Wright Brothers who then brought The Wright Flyer back from England where it had spent the war in a subway to keep it from being destroyed by the Blitz, and gave it to them.

    1. It was the Smithsonian’s own former Director, Professor Samuel Pierpoint Langley, whom the Smithsonian held out to be maker of the first viable airplane — until about World War II.

      By then, the Wright legend had firmly transcended their glorification of Langley, and later generations of Smithsonian officials cut a deal with the Wright estate and family to get the Wright Flyer back from the British museum they’d sent it to, instead.

      The deal they made, however, further compromised the Smithsonian’s historiographic integrity, promising the Wright estate and family, by secret contract, to deny any claim that any other airplane was first.

      Now, during the Wright-Whitehead debate, the senior historian of nation’s official aviation museum — to whom all the media naively turn to for objective assessments of aviaiton history — is none other than the former Ohio history promoter, and longtime principal Wright biographer (who presumably makes money from his popular books on the Wright legend), Tom Crouch, a guy with absolutely no aviation technical credentials, and all three of his degrees from state universities in Ohio.

      The Smithsonian has a very shoddy history when it comes to their integrity on the subject of early aviation historiography.

      1. NOTE:
        For verfication of my remarks about Crouch, see his own Curriculum Vitae (academic resume) at the Smithsonain Air & Space Magazine website:

        …and his bio on the Smithsonian website:

        Note that “Miami University” is in Ohio, not Florida.

        Note further that: In the fall of 2000, President Clinton appointed Dr. Crouch to the Chairmanship of the First Flight Centennial Federal Advisory Board, an organization created to advise the Centennial of Flight Commission on activities planned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight.

        Any invalidation of that “First Flight” date would put Crouch’s pivotal leadership role in that massive Centennial in retrospective question.

  4. several have tried. none are posted. So why do you say no responses?

  5. Hello everybody. About the first to fly, I have got to say that it was done a long time befoere in October 1890 by Mr Clement Ader with the Eole. He Create the word Avion. All the other flights were done in secret in the French Army.
    Thank you for the great magazine.

  6. There’s a shocking lack of objective and thorough historiography on this subject — by both sides of the issue.

    While the Whitehead faction is surely to be faulted in various ways, and are without a clear photo to establish their claim, though, we are left with the ancient philosophical question: “If a tree in the forest falls, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Put in terms of the moment: “If an early aviator made a flight, but no one got a clear photo of it, did it happen?”

    Fortunately for the Wrights, it seems, somebody got an “in flight” photo of their 1903 effort (though the Wrights didn’t show it until 1908). Of course that doesn’t mean that someone didn’t fly before them, without photographic proof.

    What of witnesses? BOTH sides have an ample array of witnesses. And, conversely, both sides’ witnesses are not inconsistent, subsequently not even in agreement that their respective first flights happened at all — Wrights’ or Whiteheads’.

    Yet the aviation history establishment, long fixated on the Wright legend, has more to answer for in the sloppy way they have echoed each other’s shouting, without examining — thoroughly, scientfically, honestly, objectively and sincerely — any of the shouted “evidence.”

    In debates about the issue, they frequently shout double-standards: Routinely, even reflexively, rejecting evidence for Whitehead’s alleged “first flight” on grounds that often apply equally to the evidence for the Wrights “first flight.”

    A clearer hint of what’s at play is in the conversation I had with a longtime staffer of a nationally prominent museum, when I mentioned the plausibliity of the evidence for Whitehead: my patriotism, as an American, was questioned. To most Americans, German-American immigrant Whitehead’s foreign birth is no substitute for a “real” “home-grown” “native” American as the author of flight.

    The real truth is that no one person, group, nor nation, “invented” the airplane — it is rather, an inevitable result of many individual features, invented in many various places and times by many other people, finally coming together into a viable airplane.

    The Wrights may be due credit for being the first to achieve visible success with it, however transient.

    But seeing is not the only acceptable reason for believing that something may have happened.

    Someone else may have flown first.

    1. Above, I accidentally typed a double-negative:
      “both sides’ witnesses are not inconsistent”

      It should read:
      “both sides’ witnesses are not consistent”
      “both sides’ witnesses are inconsistent”

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