Why Ohio Cares About Connecticut's Attempt to Rewrite Aviation History
Lawmakers in both states have reignited a century-old feud over the well-accepted claim that the Wright brothers were the "first in flight."
Ohio state Rep. Rick Perales wants to make sure everyone knows: American aviation started in his state.
That’s why he’s introducing a bill for a second time that rejects the recent assertion that Orville and Wilbur Wright were not the first to achieve controlled flight in an engine-powered airplane over a sustained distance. Last year, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a resolution that credited Gustave Whitehead with piloting an aircraft near Fairfield, Conn., a few years before the Wright brothers. Gov. Dan Malloy signed an omnibus bill into law in 2013 that also recognized Whitehead as the first to fly.*
“You don’t change history on a whim,” said Perales, a former air force pilot who introduced legislation last December that passed out of committee but didn't receive a vote before the 2013-2014 session ended.
The dispute boils down to whether Whitehead flew more than two years prior to the Wright brothers’ well-documented flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Aviation buffs have debated the veracity of Whitehead’s 1901 flight for a century, but the latest spat owes its origins to an editorial in Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, an industry trade journal. In the 2013 edition, editor Paul Jackson announced that evidence collected by John Brown, a self-trained aviation historian, had convinced him that Whitehead came first.
Public officials in Connecticut leaped at the opportunity to celebrate their state’s place in aviation history. A Connecticut legislator has doubled down on the claim, introducing a bill last month that would make Aug. 14 Gustave Whitehead Day, to honor "the first man to make a manned, powered, controlled flight.” The same lawmaker wants to make one of Whitehead's planes the official state "pioneering aircraft."
Mayors in three Connecticut municipalities posted YouTube clips on New Year's Eve to criticize the Ohio resolution against Whitehead. "We've always known that this area -- Stratford, Bridgeport, Fairfield -- has been the cradle of aviation," said Stratford Mayor John Harkins. A press release from the three mayors called the Ohio resolution "patently absurd" and accused the Ohio lawmakers of "turning their backs on science and innovation."
The biggest problem for Whitehead proponents is the lack of a photograph. Instead, the evidence amounts to local newspaper accounts (below is a drawing of Whitehead's flying contraption from a 1901 Bridgeport Herald article) and written eyewitness testimony describing his early flights. Perales, the Ohio legislator, says the documents are not definitive enough to upend the Wright brothers’ place in history. (Historians from the Royal Aeronautical Society agreed, penning a special paper in June of last year concluding that the Whitehead claims remain unproven.)
An image of Gustave Whitehead's flying contraception from a 1901 Bridgeport Herald article.
Tourism dollars are caught up in the competing state resolutions. Ohio has the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which includes a bicycle shop once owned by the Wright brothers and a plane they flew in Ohio in 1905. The Dayton park receives an average of 57,500 visitors a year, according to the National Park Service. One university study from 2004 pegged the economic benefits from the park to be more than $4 million over 10 years -- and the annual number of visitors has increased since the study published. If Whitehead flew first, that could divert some tourism and associated revenue to Connecticut.
North Carolina legislators haven't jumped into the latest fray, but they passed a resolution in 1986 dismissing evidence of Whitehead's flights and another resolution in 2003 recognizing that year as the "Aviation Centennial Year in America." The 1986 resolution includes a catty aside that Bridgeport is better known for "another great showman," P.T. Barnum, implying that stories of Whitehead's early flights amount to circus hyperbole.
Timothy Gaffney, a spokesman for Ohio’s National Aviation Heritage Area, downplays the economic impact of who flew first. “My sense is that it’s more about hometown pride than anything,” he said. “I don't think they’re trying to hijack our tourism industry.”
Even Perales, who does think Connecticut's public pronouncements could hurt Ohio tourism, said he deliberately didn't mention the economic impact in his resolution. "It would be too much about the dollars," he said. "This is about heritage."
The heritage argument cuts both ways though. In Connecticut, Whitehead is a hero. "Everybody wants him to have flown," said Andy Kosch, a high school science teacher who built a wood-and-cloth replica of the 1901 Whitehead aircraft and flew it in 1986. "It's almost like religion."
Since proving that Whitehead's model could fly, Kosch doesn't teach his students that the Wright brothers were the first to fly. "I tell them that there is debate. I tell them I believe [Gustave] did it."
*CORRECTION: A previous version said that Gov. Dan Malloy signed legislation last year asserting Gustave Whitehead flew before the Wright brothers. The General Assembly passed a related resolution last year, but the bill he signed was passed in 2013.