Whitehead "First Flight" Claims Stir Critical Backlash

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Critics that include the National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA) and a senior curator for the Smithsonian Institution have refuted claims made this month and supported by Jane's All the World's Aircraft that Gustav Whitehead piloted a powered aircraft years before the Wright Brothers. The claim, which specifically stated that Whitehead first flew his original powered monoplane by at least 1901, was recently promoted by Australian aviation historian John Brown. Brown's evidence appeared to satisfy Jane's editor, Paul Jackson, who included it in the foreword of the 100th edition of Jane's All the World's Aircraft. NAHA calls the evidence "fanciful" and notes a letter written by the Smithsonian's Tom Crouch that states the persistent accounts of Whitehead's success have been previously discredited.

The National Aviation Heritage Alliance is a not-for-profit corporation designated by Congress to manage the National Aviation Heritage Area that maintains a PO Box at Wright Brothers Station in Ohio. NAHA cites a letter written on March 15 by Crouch that claims an individual cited by a 1901 newspaper article as a "witness" of Whitehead's alleged flight later said he "was not present." According to Crouch, the "witness" told an investigative journalist in 1936 that "I do not remember or recall ever hearing of a flight with this particular plane or any other that Whitehead ever built." Crouch's letter was provoked by "a new wave of interest in the Whitehead claims" and concludes that Jane's editor, Paul Jackson, "like the editors of Scientific American" would have been "well advised to take a look at the historical record of the case, and not make his decision based on a flawed website." According to Crouch, based on available evidence, the claims of Whitehead "must remain, not proved."

Find the full text of Crouch's letter, which is unfortunately signed, Tom "Couch" (presumably a typo), here (PDF).

AVweb's prior coverage is here.

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