Wing Flap

As we near the 100th anniversay of Kitty Hawk, detractors Air 'proof' that other pioneers were first to have the wright stuff

April 22, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

There are those who would have you believe that on Dec. 17, 1903, in the fishing village of Kitty Hawk, N.C., two men with a penchant for starched white collars and bowler hats did not solve the age-old riddle of human flight.

Those first-flight tales by the brothers known as the Wrights? Simply wrong, they say.

Never mind that the world's first successful airplane - the 605-pound 1903 Wright Flyer - hangs suspended by wires high above the floor at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

The way they tell it, months - in some cases, years - before the Wrights successfully piloted their flying machine of spruce, ash, muslin and piano wire, an aviator from Connecticut - no, New Zealand ... or was it Brazil? - had already beaten them to the sky.

Such are the assertions of an enduring subculture of Wright brothers detractors who, with the approach of the 100th anniversary of powered flight, are raising the volume on a refrain that flies in the face of those boastful North Carolina license plates: The Wrights were not "first in flight."

Instead, they laud early aviation experimenters such as German-born craftsman Gustave Whitehead, New Zealand cattle farmer Richard Pearse and Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Whitehead, who as a boy built parachutes and trapped birds to examine their wings, is said to have flown his bat-winged airplane No. 21 over Fairfield, Conn., on Aug. 14, 1901 - two years before Kitty Hawk.

Self-taught inventor Richard Pearse, known to trudge behind a horse-drawn plow with his head buried in Scientific American, is reported to have flown a 25-foot monoplane a distance of 50 yards - eight months and three weeks before the Wrights' legendary flight.

And then there's Santos-Dumont, the dapper son of a wealthy Brazilian coffee planter who was widely credited with inventing the airplane after making the first official powered flight in Europe in 1906. That was three years after the Kitty Hawk flight - an event still disputed by Santos-Dumont supporters in Brazil who hail their native son as the "Father of Aviation."

"I'm fascinated by them," Wright brothers historian Tom D. Crouch says of the Kitty Hawk naysayers. "What's at work is an enthusiasm for conspiracy theories that operates in lots of areas in modern life. Sort of, `Wouldn't it be fun if everybody was wrong about a big issue like this and somebody else had really done this?' "

Unbowed, the Wrights' challengers press on from the fringes of the centennial spotlight.

They've taken to the Internet to proselytize and promote their pioneers' legacies through Web sites and bulletin boards. They've constructed replicas of their heroes' aircraft to prove the flightworthiness of their aeronautical designs. And, in some cases, they're searching for elusive new evidence to bolster their claims and planning "centennial of flight" observances all their own.

The way supporters of Gustave Whitehead tell it, the inventor cracked the problem of flight in August of 1901.

A German seaman with an aptitude for mechanics, Whitehead arrived in the United States in 1894 and experimented with flying machines in Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh before settling in Bridgeport, Conn., around 1900. He continued tinkering in a shed by his house.

By some accounts, on Aug. 14, 1901, Whitehead executed four flights in pre-dawn darkness aboard his airplane No. 21. Reaching heights of 50 feet, one flight reportedly covered a half-mile, with Whitehead leaning over to one side to steer around a clump of chestnut trees before landing safely.

"She turned her nose away from the clump of sprouts when within fifty yards of them and took her course around them as prettily as a yacht on the sea avoids a bar," wrote reporter Richard Howell in an article that appeared four days later in the Bridgeport Sunday Herald. "The ability to control the air ship in this manner appeared to give Whitehead confidence, for he was seen to take time to look at the landscape about him. He looked back and waved his hand exclaiming, `I've got it at last.' "

The article, a 5,000-word account, is considered the strongest evidence that Whitehead beat the Wrights.

The craftsman also is said to have made flights of two and seven miles over Long Island Sound in January of 1902.

More than a century later, some supporters are reviving the quest to prove the inventor beat the Wrights. They are searching for the journal of a sea captain whose name was recalled as Beckwith Brown, believed to have voyaged up and down the Connecticut coast. They hope the journal contains photographic evidence of Whitehead in the air.

"I'm really sucked into the history of this thing," says Fairfield, Conn., pilot Andrew Kosch, 63, who has boxes of Whitehead materials scattered about his home. "I really feel like the guy has been [neglected] and feel it's my duty to see that Whitehead gets some credit."

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