Wrights Likely To Retain Title Of “First” In Flight


Famed aircraft authority Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft says there’s convincing evidence that Gustav Whitehead, not the Wright brothers, was the first to achieve powered controlled flight, but critics may be unmoved. In the foreword of the 100th edition of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, Jane’s editor Paul Jackson cites the work of Australian aviation historian John Brown. Brown’s evidence includes a 1901 article describing Whitehead’s sustained flight in a controlled powered aircraft flown from a field in Connecticut, ahead of the Wrights’ 1903 flight. Unfortunately, although one picture of a Whitehead flight was reportedly taken, observers who require any direct visual evidence will be disappointed. And Whitehead is not without his detractors.

While other pioneers may have preceded the Wright brothers in briefly achieving controlled flight in a powered airplane, a lack of clear convincing evidence and successive development of an airframe have likely stunted their notoriety. And that may be the case for Whitehead.

The first written account cited by Brown that is descriptive of Whitehead’s pre-Wright flights was published by the Bridgeport Herald in August of 1901. That story states that an unnamed representative of the Herald witnessed the flight. According to Brown, the Herald published the story on page five of a subsequent issue and did not include a photograph. Jackson writes that existence of a photograph is supported by written accounts that describe it as blurry and identify it as part of an exhibition that showcased aviation in 1904 and 1906. Whereabouts of the original photograph, or any copies, are unknown. Jackson adds that Brown’s work found multiple “affidavits and statements” that exist “on tape and film or video” of individuals who “bear witness to the many powered flights made by Whitehead between August 1901 and January 1902.” There are no taped, filmed or video records available to provide visual confirmation of Whitehead’s flights. Jackson appears satisfied by the evidence presented by Brown. Find his account, here. See Brown’s web page, here. Find accounts dismissive of Whitehead’s achievements here and a brief description of other largely forgotten pioneers, here.