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


  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.

    1. Why did he not continue? As anyone who has attempted to design, buid and fly their own airplane can tell you, it is a complex, demanding, time-consuming, and expensive business. And flying it — though few will openly admit it — is risky.

      Many an aircraft “homebuilder” has gone broke in the process. Many others have died in the resulting craft, or found it too shaky to fly more than once.

      Further, there are a host of reasons why an airplane inventor would choose to discontinue efforts, even after having flown, such as:

      1.) Realization that this was very dangerous activity (43 fatal crashes were recorded in the first few years of airplane flight), and deciding not to risk one’s neck. This could have been a matter of simple sobriety, or concern for one’s family (Whitehead had a wife and child, dependent upon him, in an era when there was no Social Security, nor welfare, and few people had life insurance), or the decision that smarter investment was in his proven field of expertise: building engines (which he did for about 30 airplane customers, all over America).

      The Wrights, by comparison, had no dependents, and could risk their necks with relative carelessness if they chose, and so were more likely to continue their experiments. Further, they had the freedom and flexibility and resources and imagination to make the drastic move to North Carolina for their preliminary experiments, affording them a soft landing on sand beach or sea — compared to the rocky coastal hills of Whitehead’s Connecticut.

      2.) Further, Whitehead’s expertise in English — the language of American commerce and science — was likely limited, given that he was a fairly recent immigrant from Germany. Local-language fluency is a well-known as a decisive influence in the success of inventors and entreprenurs in America.

      3.) Lack of finances. While the Wrights had a profitable bicycle business in a busy, profitable industrial city, Whitehead did not always have such a clear and easy source of funds. Though he did gain some support, intermittently, indications are that the donors were not reliable.

      4.) Delay pending patent. Some inventors suspend their work until they feel they can get patent protection — an expensive, complex and time-consuming process that can sideline them while others zoom by — exactly what happened with the Wrights, in fact. Even preparing to apply for a patent can slow and even halt inventors, while they try to figure out what to do, and how to do it, and then begin the arduous process of documentation (seldom a skill of a technical person), and then a patent search for comparable pre-existing patents — before even applying for a patent.

      5.) Lack of focus. Many inventors are chaotic people, with short attention spans, frequently hopping from one interest to another. Some are successful this way, but most don’t succeed — at least not in the commercial sense. Time taken away from one fascination, to pursue another, often results in neither coming to full fruition, no matter the early success. (Again, keep in mind, Whitehead had dependents to think of, a home to maintain, income to provide, etc.)

      6.) Lack of patience. The disciplined patience required in aircraft development is more than most can endure. It’s possible that after the initial success, Whitehead lost the will to keep up the intense, demanding, long-term work to get a safe and useful plane. (The Wrights, by comparison, kept at it until their first viable plane, the Wright Flyer III, years after their supposed “first flight”).

      6.) Common sense. The fatal fates of other aircraft experimenters — Liliethal, Pilcher, and others — were a stark warning that this was not a practical use of one’s time.

      One scary ride in a plane you can barely control — as its poorly-structured wings fluttered (“flapped”) madly while the deadly-dangerous acetylene engine banged away, while you attempted to control it, and do so barely — can be enough to make any aviator reconsider, no matter how pioneering.

      Unlike the Wrights’ early airplane “flights” — which never made it out of the artificial support of ground effect, within a dozen or so feet above the sand — Whitehead’s supposed early flight soared fifty feet up — a long, LONG way to fall, onto hard ground. That could be one very terrifying, and deterring, first-flight experience, especially if the climb to altitude was sudden and resulting from inadequate control.

      (Inadequate control was also clearly a characteristic of the 1903 Flyer — most of the flying replicas of which have crashed, as did the Flyer itself on on all four 1903 flights, most lasting only seconds, and none of which lasted more than a couple of minutes, the longest not even reaching a quarter-mile before its crash.)

      1. Another reason for Wright persistence vs. Whitehead non-persistence:

        Wilbur & Orville had each other for help.

        Whitehead didn’t have a free-and-relable, mechanicallyt skilled family member to assist him.

        A review of successful early aviators shows, quite commonly, a duo — especially brothers:


        In fact, few pioneers succeeded, for long, without family-supplied skilled labor or money. Whitehead had neither.

  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!

    1. As to why Whitehead, if he “was indeed first to fly a heavier than air craft, why did he not continue his development?” See my comments above.

      As for “Where are the advances that surely would have been forth coming?” — note that his wing-warping may have been copied by the Wrights, following their visit to him before their “first flight.”

      As to “Why did no one else take up his research and continue?” — again, see the Wrights visit and inquiries, and Charles Manly’s inquiries, as well (Langley’s partner).

      As to “Why was the Wright aircraft the one that set the benchmark for future development?” — it simply did not. By the time the secretive Wrights got around to showing their airplane to the world, in 1908, the Europeans and others had figured out how to fly WITHOUT any help from the Wrights. The Wright’s plane may have been the best at the 1908 exhibition in Europe, where it debuted, but it was not alone in the sky, at all.

      By the following year, 1909, the planes that set the benchmark for future development were NOT the clunky, backwards Wright designs, but the more practical and sensible French designs by Bleriot, Farman, Saulnier, Brazilian Santos-Dumont, and by America’s Glenn Curtiss, and designs by others, as well. The Wright design faded rapidly from the aviation world, as did their influence in every area of aviation, while the others continued, some of them for decades.

  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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