Sadly, I recently attended the funeral of our friend Nancy, who was 80-something. Sitting with the other mourners, I couldn’t help but think about an obscure, meaningless fact that I was certain her son and I were the only ones in attendance knew. We alone knew her connection to one of aviation’s enduring controversies: Who flew first—the Wright Brothers or Gustave Whitehead? And that knowledge came by accident years before at a family gathering.
Nancy came into my life as one of the semi-relatives I inherited when I married my wife, Marlene. It was the second marriage for both of us, and in an unusual turn of events, the family of her ex-husband instantly adopted me as one of their own. I found myself attending family gatherings, which usually included the always-smiling Nancy. Technically—and let me think about this before writing it—she was the mother of my wife’s ex-husband’s nephew’s wife. In truth, because of a number of divorces in the family group, I have never clearly understood the relationships of half the family. Nancy, however, always stood out. I never once saw her in anything but a cheerful mood. This despite various health issues.
At one point, as I was talking with her and her son, the subject of aviation came up. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because they knew I was—and am—still flying my butt off flight instructing in a strange little biplane, the Pitts Special. I’m quite certain not more than two or three in the always-sizable crowd had any idea what I actually did for a living. But this time, her son mentioned it and, at the same time, said that his great-great-grandfather had been involved in early aviation.
As is often the case in gatherings like this, I was having a difficult time hearing Nancy when she joined in and said something to the effect of, “Oh, yes. A long time ago, I had this Air Force officer constantly calling me—pestering me, actually—about great-grandfather. He especially wanted to know if he had a scar on, I believe, his left leg. Supposedly, he was injured when crashing in one of his early airplanes, and this person thought that knowing that would prove something or other. I never quite understood what.”
At that point, my ears perked up. Two super obscure facts in my life exactly matched her last sentence, and I moved closer. Could it possibly be? As I sorted out my next words before I said them, I clearly recognized the amazing improbability of what I was about to say, but I said it anyway. “By any chance, was your great-grandfather Gustave Whitehead and the Air Force officer was Maj. Bill O’Dwyer?”
She said, “Why, yes! How did you know?”
I was flabbergasted. Nearly floored. At that exact moment, Flight Journal was wrestling with the controversy of who flew first and had just published an issue with a special section devoted to it. Flight Journal’s association with the claims that Whitehead flew two years ahead of the Wright Brothers goes all the way back to 1998, when one of our regular contributors, the late Maj. Bill O’Dwyer, an absolute bulldog of a journalist, had taken up the Whitehead argument and presented it in our pages. We knew Whitehead well. We knew—and know—both sides of the controversy well. We knew everything that was available about Nancy’s great-grandfather. Inasmuch as Flight Journal is published in Connecticut and Whitehead not only was a Connecticut resident but also had been recognized by the state as “First in Flight,” not the Wrights, he was anything but unknown. And I was on a first-name basis with the proponents of both sides of the argument.
How could I possibly be standing amid a group of vaguely related people, in a pleasant ranch-style home in Phoenix, Arizona, thousands of miles from Connecticut and years after I was thrust into the first-flight argument, and be talking to the great-granddaughter of Gustave Whitehead? It was impossible! But it wasn’t. I quickly ran home and grabbed a copy of Flight Journal to give to Nancy.
The controversy still rages on, both sides totally convinced their guys were the first in the air. But that was of no consequence to Nancy. Through an accidental conversation with someone at a party, she now knew much more about her great-grandfather. Now, Nancy is gone and her connection to Gustave Whitehead with her.
And so goes history. The living part of it always comes to an end. But I, at least, had a momentary, memorable brush with this episode. Good luck, Nancy. It has been a pleasure knowing you.
By Budd Davisson