The authoritative Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft has reversed course and now recognizes Gustave Whitehead’s 1901 flight in the Condor as the first successful powered flight in history, not the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk.
In the early hours of 14 August 1901, the Condor propelled itself along the darkened streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Whitehead, his staff and an invited guest in attendance. In the still air of dawn, the Condor’s wings were unfolded and it took off from open land at Fairfield, 15 miles from the city, and performed two demonstration sorties. The second was estimated as having covered 1½ miles at a height of 50 feet, during which slight turns in both directions were demonstrated.
This, it must be stressed, was more than two years before the Wrights manhandled their Flyer from its shed and flew a couple of hundred feet in a straight line after lifting off from an adjacent wooden rail hammered into the ground. And, obviously, because of his demonstrated expertise in manoeuvring, Whitehead had flown missions like this before, suggesting his lead was even greater. (Two months earlier, his No. 20 was reported to have flown from the same field, albeit weighted with sandbags in lieu of an occupant.)
John Brown uncovered the evidence relied on by Jane’s while researching the earliest “roadable airplane.” (It was Whitehead’s concept that an airplane owner would keep it in a private garage, and drive it to a convenient meadow for takeoff.) That led Brown to a Bridgeport Herald report – dismissed by Orville Wright himself late in life. And with many newspaper archives now digitized, Brown’s search of the internet yielded another 85 articles about Whitehead’s flights published in 1901 and 1902.
Brown posted all of these articles on his www.gustave-whitehead.com website, explaining the need for redundancy —
Orville Wright’s main argument in his attempt to discredit what he called “The Whitehead Legend” (August 1945, “US Air Services”, p.9) was his claim Whitehead’s flight was only reported on a back page of a local newspaper. Wright also questioned why that paper had waited four days before reporting the story, oblivious to the fact that it was a weekly newspaper which reported the flight in a special section of its very next edition. Orville cited these points as “evidence” no-one took the report seriously.
There’s also an extensive photo exhibit and analysis and reams of other material at the site.
Fred Jane’s successors now have a different notion why his Foreward to the original 1910 edition discussed the Wrights without any special deference –
All that can be said for certain is that the first Foreword to what is now All the World’s Aircraft is notable in that it does not pay homage to the Wright Brothers for initiating the age of aeroplane flight. Perhaps more from a position of knowledge than ignorance, Jane appears to have considered them to be no more than equal to many others in their contribution.
Jane probably read the coverage of Whitehead’s flight in his local paper, the Portsmouth Evening News, in 1901 and already knew the Wrights weren’t first.
Good grief! First Pluto, now this! The Firesign Theatre was prescient in naming one of their albums
Everything You Know Is Wrong.
[Via Petréa Mitchell.]