Were the Wright Bros. first in flight? Historian says no

    12:12 PM, Apr 2, 2013   |    comments
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    BRIDGEPORT, CT (CBS) -- The main attraction at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is the "Wright Flyer." The legendary aircraft was the first to fly, back in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Or was it?

    They've been called the fathers of aviation, brothers whose lift-off above a sand-dune in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina 110 years ago, radically changed the course of the 20th century. Senior curator Tom Crouch says, "The Wright Brothers are the root of everything that's happened in flight since their time."

    But what if Crouch was wrong; what if the Brothers Wright weren't the first in flight after all? Have you heard of Gustav Whitehead? Andy Kosch says, "He was a German immigrant who came to Bridgeport around 1900 and built an airplane and that airplane flew in 1901."

    Andy Kosch has spent the last 30 years spreading the word of Connecticut's aviation pioneer. He even built a replica of Number 21. The aircraft Whitehead piloted on August 14, 1901 and flew one-and-a-half miles some 50 feet off the ground. Kosch says, "I'm not saying Whitehead's plane was better than the Wright Bros, but it flew and it was controllable, and he got off the ground two years before the Wright Bros and he should get credit."

    Now, Kosch's belief has some serious backing from the publication known as "The Bible of Aviation", Jane's All The World Aircraft.

    In the 100th anniversary edition of the publication, editor Paul Jackson said "An injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville's reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was head."

    Jackson pointed to research unearthed by aviation historian John Brown, evidence he uploaded to the Internet. It includes newspaper accounts and historical photographs like one which researchers believe shows Whitehead in flight. Crouch says, "My reaction was to say, 'Gosh, ohn Brown really hoodwinked those guys.'"

    Crouch isn't buying the evidence yet. He says, "He found a photo inside a photo that showed a Whitehead machine in the air. When I look at that I see a blotch so that doesn't convince me."

    It did convince the mayor of Bridgeport Bill Finch. He helped establish a memorial to Whitehead back in 2010. He says, "It's a little bit of a David and Goliath. We're taking on the Smithsonian, the definitive word in history. But we're right, and Gustave Whitehead had no way to defend himself. He died of a mere pauper, ignominiously. We think it's a fight for the little guy."

    Andy Kosch took the fight to the tarmac back in 1987 to prove the replica could fly. "60 Minutes" Harry Reasoner was able to capture one of his attempts.

    Crouch says, "I think Gus Whitehead was a really interesting guy, but I don't think he flew before the Wright Brothers. With the Wright Brothers, you have this super foundation. You see this intellectual process that they went through. You can trace it every step of the way. It's just extraordinary."

    For these men, the "tinkerer" from Bridgeport was extraordinary too, and they hope this pronouncement secures Whitehead's place in the annals of history.


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