A century-long battle between North Carolina and Ohio about which state was “First in Flight” has finally come to an end as the two states work together to counter claims made by a new competitor — Connecticut.
Most historians agree that the Wright brothers took the first controlled, powered flight on the beaches of Kitty Hawk in 1903. But in June, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill denouncing the Wright brothers’ achievements and gave credit to Gustave Whitehead. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy then signed the bill into law.
Whitehead was a German immigrant residing in Bridgeport, Conn., at the time of his alleged flight in 1901.
But according to a statement given by Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Connecticut’s evidence is far from convincing.
One major source of evidence is Richard Howell’s eyewitness account printed in Bridgeport’s Sunday Herald, four days after Whitehead’s alleged flight took place. It mentions two other witnesses, Andrew Cellic and James Dickie.
But a reporter who attempted to track down the witnesses in 1936 reported that no one remembered Cellic, while Dickie told the reporter that he didn’t remember ever hearing about that flight.
Crouch said Whitehead supporters also presented a blurred photograph of a large bird-like machine.
N.C. Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, said the photograph didn’t prove much.
“The alleged picture is of some sort of blob. You cannot make out a definition of anything,” Cook said. “You could say it’s a close-up of a frog, or you could say it’s a spaceship — there’s no way you could say it was of anything in particular.”
Larry Tise, a history professor at East Carolina University, said historians who have analyzed the photo found it to be doctored.
But Orestes Gooden, a lecturer of aviation science at Elizabeth City State University, said he wasn’t surprised another state would make such allegations.
“People were flying before the Wright brothers, and that’s a true statement,” he said. “They just didn’t document it.”
Connecticut Rep. Larry Miller, a Republican, said the purpose of the new Connecticut law is to give Whitehead the credit he deserves.
“All we want is a little recognition for a guy from our home state, to get the credit he deserves,” Miller said. “He spent his life on it, but as a German immigrant, he didn’t stand a chance.”
Cook said his goal is to reaffirm the Wright brothers’ legacy with the help of Republican Ohio Rep. Rick Perales.
“What I want to accomplish, with the help of the representative of Ohio, is a chance to set the record straight,” he said. “If there was good, credible evidence that the Wright brothers weren’t first, I would tell you, but that’s not the case here.”
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