Samford University journalism professor Julie Hedgepeth Williams is the author of Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, 1910, examining the short life of the Wright brothers’ Alabama flight school through the records of average Montgomerians and the Alabama press. She submitted this column about the recent “first in flight” controversy in Connecticut:
The state of Connecticut has just declared local hero Gustave Whitehead to be the inventor of the airplane, claiming Whitehead flew in 1901, before the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903.
Claims like this occasionally crop up, because many people were trying to invent the airplane around the time of the Wright Brothers. Wilbur Wright himself, inspired by their efforts, resolved to make his mark on the world by inventing the airplane. The key element is that he and his brother Orville actually did it, while others did not.
Powered flight could not be achieved until a bunch of things came together. One crucial ingredient was full control of the airplane. Other experimenters understood they needed to control the up-and-down motion of aircraft and the right-and-left motion. However, others did not understand that they needed to master of the roll of the aircraft. An airplane needs to bank – tilt it on its wing – in order to maneuver successfully. The Wright Brothers figured that out. To the bicycle-building Wrights, it was natural to lean into a turn, just as bicyclists did.
If Whitehead mastered that key aspect of control, he surely kept it secret. In contrast, once the Wrights mastered this aspect, all the other would-be flyers started copying them.
The state of Connecticut also suggested that the Wright Brothers had a conspiracy with the Smithsonian to declare them the first to fly. That’s a joke. In reality, the Smithsonian’s director in the Wright Brothers era, Samuel Langley, was also trying to invent the airplane. His version plummeted dramatically into the Potomac a few days before the Wrights’ first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. Despite this, the Smithsonian declared that Langley had invented the airplane. The claim was preposterous, so Orville Wright refused to allow the actual first airplane to be exhibited in the Smithsonian until the institution admitted that the Wrights had, indeed, flown first.
Much has been written on Whitehead’s supposed flights and witnesses who saw him fly. As mentioned above, such claims are frequent. Many in Alabama believe that Dr. Lewis Archer Boswell, whose plantation is now the location of the Talladega Superspeedway, flew in 1894. He also had lots of supposed witnesses. And yet, his aircraft remains a mystery. Perhaps he built a model. Perhaps he built a glider. Either would look quite dramatic to people who had never seen an airplane, and stories of such a craft could quite easily be magnified to match the Wright Flyer when the Wright Brothers were successful.
The Wright Brothers spent part of 1910 in Montgomery, Alabama, where they established the nation’s first civilian flying school and where their students flew the first night flights in the world. And yet, shortly before the Wright Brothers arrived in Alabama, a Birmingham resident claimed to have built an airplane and to have flown it many times at night, with multiple witnesses. The man even promised he was going to start an airline passenger service between Alabama and Washington, DC. Of course he didn’t do so, because his story was made up. And yet, a reader of the newspaper account might have believed it and repeated it as truth later.
There’s no telling what people in Connecticut actually saw – a glider or a toy model, perhaps. But if they did indeed see a successful airplane invented by Whitehead, it would seem that Whitehead had very little understanding of getting the word out or of explaining to others how it could be done. It seems a strong possibility that he didn’t do so simply because he hadn’t really mastered flight at all.
Julie Williams’s Wings of Opportunity: The Wright Brothers in Montgomery, Alabama, 1910 is available from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore. Williams’s most recent book is A Rare Titanic Family: The Caldwells’ Story of Survival, about her relatives who survived the sinking of the Titanic.