A newly discovered photograph calling into question the Wright Brothers claim to the “first in flight” title has created controversy this week between aviation experts. Some historians say German Immigrant Gustave Whitehead deserves the distinction. Dayton aviation photographer and historian Dan Patterson is WYSO’s aviation commentator. He discussed the issue in an interview with Emily McCord.
Emily McCord: The photograph itself was a photograph within a photograph. It was a picture of an exhibition celebrating aviation.
Dan Patterson: That’s correct.
EM: And in the background, there are several photos that are on display and this is the one that he zoomed in on.
DP: That’s correct. I looked up the website and it’s been enlarged about 3,000 times and it’s inconclusive. It just as easily could be a cloud formation. It could be anything. It is in direct contrast to the crystal clear images that the Wright Brothers made of their experiments from the point they started through when they flew in France, when they flew in Europe and came back to the United States which are razor sharp, crystal clear photographs. If you enlarge the photograph of the Wright Brother’s first flight, which is the first flight, you could probably read the make of the heel on Orville’s shoe. It’s that crisp. These are blobs.
EM: Then John Brown takes this photo to Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. That’s a really respected publication in the aviation world and the editor there said ‘yeah, Gustave Whitehead deserves the mantle’. Why would he corroborate that?
DP: That’s an extremely good question. Jane’s All The World Aircraft has been the bible for aviation stuff for over 100 years. They’ve been publishing before the Wright Brothers flew. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait until the latest issue got to the library so I could ride my bike down to the library and get the book out so I could see was up. So for them to give this apparent credibility seems to me like an attempt to sell books.
EM: The Smithsonian has come out in defense for the Wright Brothers being the first in flight. Their 1903 Flyer is on display on the National Air and Space Museum. Here’s Tom Crouch talking about this matter in Dayton and he’s saying that the claim that Gustave is the first actually raises more questions.
Tom Crouch: In later years [Whitehead] continued to build airplanes for other people. Strangely enough, they didn’t look like anything like what he claimed to have flown in 1901 and 1902. And even stranger, none of those planes he built for other people in later years ever left the ground. So you’re left with what? Did this guy forget the secret of flight? If he had flown that far, why didn’t he continue doing it?
EM: Those are some strong words from Tom Crouch with the Smithsonian. Others are saying that they want to protect the Wright Flyer exhibit and that’s why they want to hold onto that mantle that the Wright Brothers were the first in flight. What’s the story here?
DP: There is no better authority on the globe on the Wright Brothers than Tom Crouch. They have the airplane, they have the research, he’s done the definitive book on the Wright family. I don’t think there’s a vested interested. It’s a matter of history.
EM: But this whole idea that the Smithsonian may want to be protecting that exhibition. Does that hold any water?
DP: Absolutely not. They did not even get the Wright Flyer until Orville died in 1948. Up to then they were claiming that Samuel Langley flew first, that Glenn Curtiss had an issue flying first, that the French flew first. They would not recognize the work of the Wright Brothers.
EM: Gustave Whitehead, that name has come up before. Even without this photographs, other folks have brought this up and said there’s other evidence that this is the guy that was the first in flight.
DP: That’s true. This controversy percolates out of the swamp every eight or nine years. There were claims that Whitehead was first. Many of the French felt they were first. There was a guy in New Zealand who thought he was first. And where’s the proof? A fuzzy photograph or a questionable eye witness from the time period this guy was operating in Connecticut go in direct contrast to the Wright Brothers very methodical method of research and a photographic record every step of the way. So, it hard to believe. It’s impossible to believe. Those of us in Dayton, Ohio should be out in the street with pitchforks and torches defending the Wright Brothers.
Find the photo in question at analysis at John Brown's website devoted to Gustave Whitehead.