National News

NC, Ohio fight to retain first flight bragging rights

Posted October 24, 2013

— Ohio and North Carolina drew a line on the tarmac Thursday in the fight over who was first to make a powered airplane flight.

Ohio license plates proclaim the state is the "Birthplace of Aviation" while North Carolina tags say the state is "First in Flight." Connecticut believes both are wrong.

There, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law this summer saying German-born aviator and Bridgeport, Conn., resident Gustave Whitehead was the first to make a powered flight.

The state went on record saying Whitehead made his flight in 1901 – two years before Wilbur and Orville Wright lifted off on North Carolina's Outer Banks. The brothers were from Ohio.

On Thursday, Ohio state Rep. Rick Perales and North Carolina state Sen. Bill Cook held news conferences in their respective states to dispute Connecticut's action and reassert that the Wright Brothers were first.

"It's important to protect the truth," said Cook, R-Dare. "Nowadays, it seems like there are an awful lot of people who are trying to rewrite history.

"If you believe a lie or untruth enough, folks start to believe it, and I want to cut that off at the beginning," he added.

"If the Connecticut legislature hadn't changed the law to acknowledge Whitehead as the first in flight, I think we would have just let it slide," said Perales, whose district includes the town where the Wright Brothers had a hanger and tested their planes.

Wright Brothers memorial NC lawmaker: Wrights' feat worth fighting for

Recent interest in Whitehead came as a documentary aired in the spring by an Australian historian, John Brown, who reviewed photographs, documents and newspaper articles to make his determination that Whitehead was first.

After looking at the research, Jane's All the World's Aircraft, an influential industry publication, agreed.

In the summer, as Connecticut passed its measure, Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, said Whitehead's backers were "absolutely wrong." The Wrights' plane is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.

"Whitehead's legend has spawned much speculation and hearsay," Crouch said then. "People who have looked at this over the years ... almost unanimously reject the claim."

The Smithsonian is forbidden by a contract with the Wright brothers' estate to admit that anyone else was the first to fly, in part because they had previously fought off other claims.

Both lawmakers said the Whitehead claim is based on a grainy photo that is inconclusive.

"I don't know about you, but I looked at it real hard," Cook said. "I think it's a frog."

After their flight, the Wright brothers took their plane to Europe to show folks the newfangled flying technology, but Whitehead did little, he said.

"I have yet to see anything – anything – that even closely resembles an indisputable fact," he said of Whitehead's purported feat. "He's less than a footnote in history."

Whitehead's supporters said he had bad judgment when he tried to commercialize his design.

Perales said he is an engineer and is willing to consider evidence that perhaps the Wright brothers were not the first.

"If there is substantial evidence that leads us to believe it may be different then we're all comfortable with that," he said. "But there's absolutely nothing."

Connecticut state Rep. Larry Miller, who introduced the bill that became law, released an email statement this week saying that is not the case.

"Mounting evidence including over 100 contemporary published accounts of the event and supporting photographs were sufficient for Jane's All the World Aircraft, the Bible of aviation, to declare in March of this year that Whitehead should be credited with the first flight which took place right here in Stratford, Conn., on August 14, 1901," the statement said.

Perales and Cook said the Connecticut legislature is not the first to weigh in.

"This thing comes up every 20 years or so," Perales said.

Cook said that in 1985, the North Carolina legislature passed a resolution repudiating any contention that Whitehead was the first in flight.

"I think it's a silly issue but an issue worth talking about because it's so important to North Carolina," he said. "North Carolina is defined by several things and one of the big ones is where the first flight occurred."

32 Comments

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  • goldenosprey Oct 25, 5:09 p.m.

    We must stick to out plates. "First in Flight" is so much better than "Forty-eighth in Teacher Pay."

  • chuck1947 Oct 25, 1:54 p.m.

    Is the same claim made about 20-25 years ago? It was decided that the engine was under powered and that the plane was uncontrolable. They built a replica of the craft, tied it to a trailor without an engine or pilot and it finally lifted off at over forty miles per hour and was so out of control that the car driver almost lost control of the car when the trailor started to fishtail.

  • IPayYouPay Oct 25, 1:53 p.m.

    Wow, this is the first I've heard of Connecticut -- anybody else? How many other states are going to claim this. Just because somebody's BORN in a state doesn't mean that state is "breeding" that kind of person, but the land and air quality in another state is the TRUE ORIGIN OF FLIGHT. 'Nuf said.

  • Mon Account Oct 25, 1:26 p.m.

    At least they can both brag that they were on the pro-flight and the anti-gay marriage bandwagons.

  • Kaitlyn Oct 25, 12:42 p.m.

    Maybe "First in powered controlled flight over sand that now has the tallest lighthouse on it."

  • itsmyownopinion Oct 25, 12:32 p.m.

    What took Conn so long if they believe they're entitled?

  • BubbaDukeforPresident Oct 25, 11:57 a.m.

    Both N.C. and Ohio are correct. The Wright Brothers conceived of their idea of a motorized airplane in Ohio, but it flew first in N.C. Delaware has no reason to be jealous - they have had more lottery winners per capita than other states.

  • Rebelyell55 Oct 25, 11:47 a.m.

    No doublt, if not the first in flight, the first in controlled flight.

  • heard-it-all-before Oct 25, 11:13 a.m.

    well the history channel told me all of you are wrong. ancient aliens were the first to fly. sounds good to me.

    moving on now, senators... we were discussing forced healthcare and domestic spying

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Oct 25, 10:57 a.m.

    djofraleigh asked, "What pilot with a plane would fly and not keep flying?"

    An injured or scared person might do this. Or, more likely, an introverted one...an engineer who would say something like this many years later:

    "Yes, my grandchildren, I was the first to fly, but it was just for my own gratification. I didn't want to make a big deal about it. I didn't want money for it. I'm not that kind of person. But, I thought you might like to know the truth."

    Personally, I know folks like this...people who play down their contributions to society...who do altruistic things for their own satisfaction...not huge monetary recognition. Some of them are public school teachers.

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