Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Man Who (Perhaps) Flew Before the Wrights

When I have enough time and ambition, I’d like to do some in-depth research and try to find out who really made the first flight in a powered, heavier-than-air craft.

Conventional belief holds that Orville and Wilbur Wright were first when they flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. Most never question this “fact,” because we’ve been taught it all our lives…

Michael Wutz is a brilliant professor of English at Weber State University and one of the nicest fellows I’ve ever met. I think he speaks at least three languages, and he knows more about literature and film than I can hope to learn if I live 100 years. This is not empty flattery, just truth. Besides teaching me a great deal about modern American literature, he turned me onto the story of Gustave Whitehead, a German immigrant to the U.S.

Gustav Weisskopf, a.k.a. Gustave Whitehead

Whitehead, born Gustav Weisskopf in Wutz’s hometown of Leutershausen, Germany, claimed to achieve powered flight more than two years before the brothers Wright. Anyone interested in early aviation history ought to read up on him. If his claim is true, why did the Wrights get credit? I believe Whitehead’s story may have been suppressed when German-American relations went (understandably) sour in the first World War. It’s also possible that our conventional belief is true, and Whitehead embellished or totally fabricated the accounts of his early flights.

A replica of Whitehead's aircraft

In any case, Whitehead’s craft was a more elegant, aesthetically-pleasing one than the Wrights’, and after a cursory study of his life, I find him to be a fascinating character. Alas, some doubt is cast on his claim and on the few books that have been written about him. The reasons for that doubt are explained here, along with brief accounts of several others who claimed to have flown first:

Part of me hopes Whitehead’s claim is true. I’m not totally convinced that it is, or that it’s not. We’ll probably never know with absolute certainty, but it’s a mystery that deserves to be solved.


For further reading and some nice photos, I recommend:

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