Wright Brothers Beaten: Did A German Born Inventor In Connecticut Fly First?

It’s been almost 110 years since the Wright Brothers’ historic flight on Dec. 17, 1903 made Orville Wright the first person to fly a heavier-than-air craft under its own power.

But new evidence suggests that someone else accomplished the feat as early as 1901.

Local records and articles show that a German-born inventor in Bridgeport, Conn., Gustave Whitehead, bested the Wrights by two years. The new revelation will be reflected in the 100th anniversary edition of Jane’s All the World Aircraft, a publication famous for chronicling aviation’s early days.

“Jane’s has solidified what we’ve known all along — Gustave Whitehead was the first to fly a powered, manned aircraft before the Wright Brothers, and he did it right here in Bridgeport,” Mayor Bill Finch, understandably elated, told the Connecticut Post on Tuesday.

Jane’s pulls no punches moving Whitehead onto the Wrights’ place on the mantle. Editor Paul Jackson described Whitehead’s flight happening “...more than two years before the Wrights manhandled their Flyer from its shed and flew a couple of hundred feet in a straight line after lifting off from an adjacent wooden rail hammered into the ground.” The article’s subhead reads “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Whitehead’s flight wasn’t ignored when it happened, however. The Bridgeport Herald reported on Aug. 14, 1901 that the inventor piloted his aircraft, dubbed the No. 21 flyer, for about half a mile, reaching a maximum altitude of about 40 feet. The Wrights’ flight was shorter; their aircraft flew for about 200 feet at an altitude of about 10 feet.

Most of the evidence presented in Jane’s comes from John Brown, an Australian historian living in Munich, Germany. Brown’s website is full of information on Whitehead.

“Jane’s has been the bible of aviation, so for them to come down very solidly behind my work was very encouraging,” he said.

How different would the world of aviation be had we touted Whitehead, who never received American citizenship, as the father of powered flight, rather than the all-American Wright Brothers from Ohio flying on North Carolina sand dunes?

Whitehead’s aircraft looked more like a modern airplane than the Wrights’: with a vertical stabilizer tail in the back (as opposed to the Flyer I’s canard configuration), a boat-like fuselage and two propellers in the front.

Even more remarkable? The No. 21 flyer’s wings could fold alongside the body of the craft, which allowed it to, according to the Bridgeport Herald, drive up to 30 mph on rough roads.

But most importantly, will North Carolina have to lose the “First In Flight” motto on its license plates? We’re sure the Nutmeg State would love to have it.

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