Flight of fancy: Connecticut challenges the Wright Brothers' feat

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History refuses to stay moored in time to the accepted facts. Instead, new theories constantly arise and the conventional wisdom becomes confused. Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered the Americas, but today it is said Norseman Leif Ericson came first.

Now it's happening to the Wright Brothers.

The airplane made by the bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, flew for 120 feet on Dec. 17, 1903, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, but that was enough to make them immortal for the historic achievement of the first manned, powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. But in time for the 110th anniversary of that feat, the revisionists have been busy.

This past summer Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law recognizing a German immigrant, Gustave Whitehead, as the real claimant to the first powered airplane flight carrying a person, thanks to a flight he made near Bridgeport, Conn., on Aug. 14, 1901 -- two years before the Wrights.

This is not a new claim and over the years many experts have discounted it. The only photograph is said to be inconclusive and a contemporary account in the Bridgeport Herald of a 10-minute flight appears too sensational to be true. But an Australian historian has revived the claim and the authoritative "Jane's All the World's Aircraft" has supported it.

This has gone down like a lead glider in Ohio (license pate, "Birthplace of Aviation") and in North Carolina ("First in Flight"), but the bristling politicians there should slow their propellers. This history needs a bit more rewriting to displace the Wright Brothers. That's because Pittsburgh, Pa., has a claim that is even earlier -- not that local politicians should be getting any ideas.

Part of the Gustave Whitehead story is that he lived in Pittsburgh for a time and in 1899 he and a companion supposedly (that word again) made a half-mile flight in Oakland, perhaps Schenley Park. The plane, propelled by a steam engine, was said to have crashed into a building, causing the assistant to be scalded by steam. As recounted by William F. Trimble in "High Frontier: A History of Aeronautics in Pennsylvania," no contemporary newspaper account of such an experiment exists.

Whitehead certainly deserves credit as an aviation pioneer. But if the Pittsburgh flight sounds fanciful -- and it does -- it's a fair bet the one in Bridgeport was, too. Despite what Connecticut says, the Wright Brothers' fame remains sky-high.


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