There is no doubt the prolific Gustave Whitehead deserves an honorable mention in the Hall of Aviation Pioneers. He built dozens of aircraft and workable gliders as well as several lightweight gasoline-powered engines, and Scientific American frequently mentioned his work. But was he “first in flight”? No. Those honors go to the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright, who completed the first powered, man-carrying, controlled flight of more than a few meters in the first decade of the 20th century...
...Powered, heavier-than-air, man-carrying flight. For this most important multi-adjective title, many contenders are trotted out by their partisan supporters, and they all claim to have beaten the Wright Brothers into the air. Here are some of them: Clement Ader!, say the French. His purported 20-centimeter altitude and 50-meter distance seems worthy of a footnote, but not laurels. Richard Pearse of New Zealand, who crashed into a spiny gorse hedge. Karl Jatho of Germany. Augustus Moore Herring of Michigan. Powered “flights” all. Hops of only a handful of meters. Is that flight? To those readers who are from France, New Zealand, Germany, Michigan—apparently yes.
The State of Connecticut, however, is keen to legislate its way to the front of the pack. Their decision is partly based on a very fuzzy photograph recently unearthed by aviation historian John Brown of Australia in Bavaria and dated to 1906. It purports to show an aircraft in flight in 1901. “Or a frog” as one wag commenting on CNN’s report put it. The photo in question is too fuzzy to show pilot or motor or a towline or Whitehead, and could easily be a glider. (Scientific American has images of Whitehead piloting a glider—an unpowered airplane.) Or it could be a frog making a hop. But why quibble?
The main evidence in favor of a Whitehead flight is a newspaper article from the Bridgeport Herald, published on Sunday, August 18, 1901, about an airplane flight from Fairfield, Conn. There is a quote from Whitehead, supposedly on how he felt while flying: “I never felt such a strange sensation as when the machine first left the ground and started on her flight. I heard nothing but the rumbling of the engine and the flapping of the big wings.” Flapping? Really? That design is called an ornithopter and is a very unusual design for a man-carrying aircraft. Whitehead was a prolific builder and inventor, but no working airplanes exist (apart from reengineered, redesigned ones reconstructed by those in the Whitehead camp). The consensus on the article is that it was an interesting work of fiction, written as such, and not intended to be a serious report on flight research. The sentiment is echoed by the 1937 affidavit from James Dickie, who was listed by the Bridgeport Herald as being present at the flight: “I believe the entire story in the Herald was imaginary, and grew out of the comments of Whitehead in discussing what he hoped to get from his plane.”
Gustave Whitehead in flight at an altitude of four meters with the motive power provided by a brawny assistant. It does classify as flight, but perhaps not the “flight” referred to by the Connecticut Legislature.
But real, powered, man-carrying, controlled, long-distance flight? That honor still belongs to the Wright Brothers. But not for their feeble flights of 1903. On October 5, 1905, at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Ohio, Wilbur Wright flew the modified Wright Flyer III for 38 kilometers. Now that is a flight. The Flyer III is the first fixed-wing aircraft to be designated a National Historic Landmark. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers honors the Flyer III as “the first practical airplane.”
Related article: The Case for Gustave Whitehead.