Planes, puns, and politics – who has a right to the Wrights?

A few hours of research into the controversy over who deserves credit for the first powered flight is all it takes for you to question the value of a free press. I suffered through the wordplay, and I plan to make you do the same.

This article should have been a joke. My goal was to write a satire piece that would make a mountain out of what I had anticipated was a mole hill. Unfortunately, it seems I’ve been beaten to the punch by none other than three state governments, a federal government, and some New Zealanders. I had naively believed that at most this first flight thing would be a minor kerfuffle. I was wrong. It’s a major kerfuffle.

Before we even decide who gets credit for the Wright Brothers’ first flight, we have to prove that the Wrights even were the first flight.

Our camera pans down towards New Zealand in March 1903.

Pearse monoplane
Richard Pearse’s monoplane – note the tricycle undercarriage.

It’s nine months before the Wrights would make their successful powered flight attempt. A man named Richard Pearse wheels a single-winged aircraft into a field. Pearse is widely recognized as the town crackpot inventor, credited with many odd machines such as a motorcycle, or more accurately a bike with a motor. But here he stood, with what amounted to a tricycle plus a motor and wings.

His monoplane “flew” 140 meters before colliding with a hedge. Allegedly. Eyewitnesses claimed to have witnessed the first powered flight, and many New Zealanders still celebrate his accomplishments today. There’s one problem. Pearse himself said he didn’t do it, and gives all credit to the Wright Brothers. Now Pearse was a notoriously secretive and shy man, and it’s possible he simply wanted to be left alone. His secrecy also led to him leaving very few notes on his designs and tests, so we have no objective evidence to prove any successes. We’ll just have to take his word for it that his early attempts failed.

Now we can head to the US, but before we meet the Wrights, we have a brief layover in Connecticut.

Gustave Who-be-what-ee?

Gustave Whitehead airplane
Gustave Whitehead’s “Model 21” has a disputed history.

We move back in time to 1901, to the first claimed instance of powered flight. A man named Gustave Whitehead actually claims to have successfully manned a powered aircraft twice before the Wrights. His first was in 1901 with the Model 21, the second in 1902. Strangely, while the claims are widely debunked, and suffer from severe lack of objective evidence, Whitehead’s claims have a large constituency.

Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, a well trusted source for aviators, would at one point endorse the theory, sending a shock through the aviation world (though they later backed down). Jane’s article is often credited for allowing the theory to take off again (sorry).

Most Whitehead-believers stand by two major pieces of evidence that substantiates the claims.

Whitehead image?
“I don’t know about you, but I looked at it real hard. I think it’s a frog.” — North Carolina State Senator Bill Cook

The first is the image at right. Judge for yourself.

The second is an article in the Bridgeport Herald that covered the event. You can find the article on page 5 (right after the astounding news that the court vindicated Mrs. Clark on page 4). This article relies on eyewitnesses, however, and is not convincing to most people, especially because many of the eyewitnesses gave conflicting testimony ranging from saying no flight happened, to saying it lasted over a mile.

The Whitehead theory falls apart for many reasons. One disadvantage is that Whitehead virtually disappeared from the discussion of aviation around 1911, and didn’t resurface again until 1935, so many records of his work have been lost.

Another reason is that Whitehead suspiciously changed his designs drastically after his supposedly successful early attempts. It’s unclear why he would do this if he had achieved the successful powered flight he claimed to. For these reasons and more, skeptics consider the story to be more of a folktale that makes a good anecdote, rather than historical fact. For now, I’ll leave Mr. Whitehead alone, although we will revisit him shortly.

“The Wright Stuff”

Wrights' first flight
Easily the most famous image in aviation history.

Now we fast forward to December 17, 1903. A cold, windy day in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville and Wilbur Wright begin revving up the engine on their biplane and send it flying down the wooden track. Their first flight lasted 12 seconds, which is nothing special, but what the Wrights provided was repeatability. They made three well controlled flights that day, the longest of them lasting almost a minute. They were extremely meticulous in their record keeping, and presented clear evidence of their successes, which has led to theirs being by far the most credible and accepted story.

So now that we’ve settled who flew first, we begin the fight over whose politicians can claim credit for it.

Right to the Wrights

The dispute over credit for the Wrights is between two states: Ohio and North Carolina. The Brothers were born in Ohio, and it’s where they built bicycles, kites, and gliders to develop their engineering talent. What did North Carolina supply for the brothers? Nothing. And sand. But it was precisely that sandy nothingness that created the strong steady winds and updrafts which lured the Wrights to Kitty Hawk’s Kill Devil Hills.

But is this enough to claim full credit for the achievements of the Wrights? Granted, the Kitty Hawk community was welcoming to the Brothers, and certainly assisted with their endeavors, but it offered little in the way of aerospace engineering expertise that should grant them the “First in Flight” credential. However, Kittyhawkians argue that the Wrights made the final tweaks to their prototypes in Kitty Hawk, so while the Wrights started their journey in Ohio, they finished it in Kitty Hawk. So who deserves credit?

Wright monument
Kitty Hawk: first in flight, or the birthplace of aviation?

The average kindergartner could offer a solution to this dilemma: they can share credit for the first flight. Unfortunately, state politicians rarely match up to the mental prowess of kindergartners, meaning the situation is about to get very complex.

We move forward exactly a century to 2003. The United States Congress voted 378–3 to confirm Ohio as the “Birthplace of Aviation.” Who were the three dissenters? Yup. North Carolina representatives. When asked to justify their vote, even in the face of overwhelming disagreement, they explained “This is Sparta,” then ripped off their shirts and began attacking Speaker Hastert with concealed carry gavels.

The result of this vote is that Ohio received the “Birthplace” slogan and North Carolina gave themselves the “First in Flight” slogan. To be most accurate, it should be the other way around. Aviation, while carried for a few decades in Ohio’s womb, was officially born in North Carolina, but the first to fly were from Ohio. Consider: when Usain Bolt sets a 100m record, it’s Jamaica that wins “first in race” not Beijing.

But I digress…

License plates OH and NC
A truce, of sort.

For a while, it seemed the political squabbles would never end. And the cultural sore spots between the two states still remain. But the governments seem to have reached an amicable agreement, proving once again that nothing brings people together faster than a common enemy.

The Enemy of My Enemy…

We return to Connecticut in 2013 – 110 years after the Wright Brothers. The Connecticut state legislature passes a bill that specifically refutes the Wright Brothers’ claim to first flight. The bill also named a state polka. Because as long as you are legislating folktales, why not name a state polka while you’re at it?

Connecticut later expanded on this in a 2014 resolution stating that Connecticut was first in flight. The justification for these actions go back to, of course, the 1901 claims by Gustave Whitehead.

But as you might expect, these strange proceedings did not go unnoticed. In 2013, congressmen from both state legislatures came together to hate on Connecticut in a press conference. They also gathered signatures from historians that refuted Connecticut’s claims. Two years later, Ohio passed its own 2015 resolution that served to counteract Connecticut’s claim. This resolution helped further unify North Carolina and Ohio in the fight to preserve what they believed to be the truth.

This brings us to present day, and considering Ohio’s love (obsession) for aviation, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of first flight legislation. All three of these states have created their own tourist attractions and monuments to their respective early aviators. In fact, Dayton, Ohio, has one of the best aviation museums in the world.

What can we learn from this story?

  • If you’re going to invent an airplane, practice with bicycles, take notes, and bring a camera. Don’t just wing it.
  • Airplane puns are too easy, and should be outlawed.
  • If states can kerfuffle, they will kerfuffle.
  • Kill Devil Hills is the coolest name for any place ever.

P.S. I have no stake in this. I’m from Illinois. Land of Lincoln. Of course, Lincoln was born in Kentucky, then he moved to Indiana, then to Illinois, until he died in Washington, D.C., and there’s no way that will cause any disputes.

8 Comments

  • I doubt that either Pearse or Whitehead managed a heavier than air, powered, and manned flight from level ground, but it’s pretty well documented that the 1890 trials of Clement Ader’s “Eole” resulted in a short, but ground effect limited, flight from level terrain.

    His later efforts seem to have been largely unsuccessful, but his followup aircraft, “Avion III”, was at least preserved in a Paris museum.

    I can’t for the life of me figure out why people continue to make arguments for the likes of Santos Dumont (who flew *after* the Wrights), or unknowns with no proof and dodgy references when the most likely candidate for everything but “sustained” and “controlled” is the only one actually accepted in history circles.

    • I had the opportunity to visit the Airbus facilities in Toulouse France in 2000. I remember the first thing they did was usher us into this small auditorium to present a short film on Clement Ader and his “Bat” aeroplane. They claim this was the first ever powered flight and his aircraft was twin engined to boot. They were very serious about this and his name in France aviation circles is highly regarded. I suppose that every major country lays claim to first in flight.

      Jack

  • It would be unseemly to let this fine article go without a teeny cavil. The brothers were not both born in Ohio. Henry County, Indiana is apparently the birthplace of Wilbur Wright, and the fine indoor/outdoor Wilbur Wright museum near New Castle, IN appears has the documentation ( http://www.wwbirthplace.com ). In any case, the museum is a delightful if out-of-the-way place for a peaceful visit, and for contemplating the humble origins of a man whose brain changed the world.

  • Thanks – great article. It brings up a question that is asked around where I live – Akron, OH. Can we still claim the title of “Rubber Capital of the World” if tires are no longer made here?

  • Why not? Tulsa (my hometown) will forever be known as “Oil Capital of the World,” even though most major oil companies’ HQs left T-Town long ago and moved to Houston. Tulsa is also the birthplace of Braniff Airlines.

    I resolve it thusly – the first POWERED flight happened at Kill Devil Hills / Kitty Hawk, NC. We have photographic proof – taken by a fellow USCG Coastie. The Wright Bros were from OH – and they may have had several experimental powerless (glider) flights in or near their workshop in Dayton before moving their operations to NC. The world’s first SUSTAINED POWERED flight happened THERE. If anybody else wants to claim CT, or New Zealand, or any other place they’re gonna have to provide incontrovertible movie footage or more than just a fuzzy picture for me to change my opinion.

  • I went to school for a couple of years in Brazil, where they (along with the French) firmly believe that Alberto Santos DuMont was the first to successfully takeoff, fly, and land a heavier-than-air aircraft. They believe that the Wrights used “rails” and a “catapult” (or people pushing the aircraft) to launch the aircraft. They don’t dispute that the Wrights flew first, only that they did not take off on their own power. The pictures of the Wright’s flights do show wooden “rails”, and that’s all the Brazilian and French folks need to confirm their version of the events.

    PS – even after all their attempts at “brainwashing”, the ONLY question that I “got wrong” on their history exam was “Who was the first man to successfully takeoff, fly, and land a heavier-than-air aircraft?” I proudly wrote “Orville Wright” as my answer…

  • Puns, wright or wrong, go a long way in my book. Well done, Mr. Chapman. I’m from Central Florida, very near the Indoor Foliage Capital of the World. Not a lot of dispute over that one. (Who would want it?)

  • Real facts: Wright bros made the first controlled powered flight with a plane heavier than air. Santos Dumont, later, made the first controlled powered fligth with a plane heavier than air that took off without external help (powered take off). Both deserve a significant place in the history of aviation.

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