Letter to Sciam editor June 29

Aviation History | History of Flight | Aviation History Articles, Warbirds, Bombers, Trainers, Pilots | Letter to Sciam editor June 29

Dear Mr. Schlenoff,
I’m the historian to whose findings you refer in your June 13, 2013 commentary on Connecticut’s commemoration of Gustave Whitehead: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=recent-bill-connecticut-proclaims-gustave-whitehead-first-fly-not-wright-BrothersWhile I applaud many of your observations, (particularly those regarding the Wrights’ pre-1905 flight claims and their patent litigation), others need commentry themselves.
Citing “first and second place revisionism” by “partisan supporters”, you write, “there is no substantiated record of Whitehead ever flying any of his own powered airplanes over any substantial distance”. You further allege, “the State of Connecticut [ ] is keen to legislate its way to the front of the pack” and assert, “their decision is partly based on a very fuzzy photograph” of “an aircraft in flight in 1901” but you also entertain the notion that the photo could show “a frog”.
Let me address the issue of substantiation first.
Prior to 1906, the only published, eyewitness account of a flight by the Wright brothers appeared on page 36 of a beekeeper’s journal. So, in late 1905, your magazine – skeptical about whether the Wrights had really flown – sent questionnaires to 17 Dayton residents. 11 confirmed the flights. Clearly, your magazine felt this method of eliciting unsworn testimony was appropriate. For you promptly declared, the Wrights had flown.
I invite you to compare this with the 17 witnesses (14 under oath) who testified they saw Whitehead fly in the years prior to 1903. One of them published his observations four days later in a 1901 newspaper. All of them described flights by a powered aircraft over distances necessitating sustained flight. Added to this, there are three reports by journalists who describe seeing a photo of Whitehead successfully flying his 1901 powered machine. (One of those reports appeared in Scientific American.)
This is the primary basis for Gustave Whitehead’s claim to have accomplished history’s first manned, powered, sustained, controlled airplane flight. The claim is not based on a blurred photo, as you suggest. The photo is used, instead, to corroborate the credibility of those journalists (witnesses). Were they lying? As you and I both point out, the blurriness of the photo obscures critical details. But it does show five of the six features described in the reports, thereby helping to substantiate them.
Disturbingly, you entertain the notion that the photo could show “a frog”. Apart from the obvious, i.e. “why would a photo of a frog be displayed in the Whitehead section of an aeronautical exhibition surrounded by photos of Whitehead’s No. 21 aircraft?”, the respective shapes of “a frog”, on the one hand, and “a high-wing monoplane with a central mast flying at a height of 20 feet”, on the other hand, are somewhat different. Besides, referring to the analyses of forensic photo experts in this manner is unbefitting.
Your statement that the eyewitness news report of Whitehead’s first flight was “not intended to be a serious report on flight research” is simply wrong. The “intent” was made clear when the publisher reprinted the story in 1937, emphasizing that it stood by the story and opening its archives to investigators from the Library of Congress and Harvard (both of whom, incidentally, concluded that Whitehead had flown first).
Finally; the State of Connecticut has not “legislated history”. In 1985, it passed a resolution asking the Smithsonian to examine Whitehead’s case. The Smithsonian declined (deferring to its contract with the Wrights’ heirs). So, knowing it couldn’t legislate history, the State waited another 28 years for impartial historians to examine the case. Only after those findings were confirmed by peer review did the Connecticut Assembly act to commemorate Whitehead’s achievements. That is their duty since he was a resident of their state.
What I find most bewildering is that your magazine described pre-Wright powered flights by Whitehead in five of its editions: Sept. 19, 1903, p.204; Jan. 27, 1906, pp.93-94; Nov. 24, 1906, p.379; 15. Dec. 1906, p.447 & Jan. 25, 1908, p. 54. It’s very interesting reading. I find those reports very hard to reconcile with your article.
John Brown

Updated: July 8, 2013 — 3:47 PM
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