Did Gustave Whitehead Make "The First Flight" ? We believe it was Wilbur Wright who did, on the fourth and final attempt, December 17, 1903. We further believe that Gustave Whitehead did manage to make short hops in a powered machine, as had others before him, and further, that he had managed to make gliding flights in ground effect, as had others before him. Applying the Proposed Definition of The First Flight, found in this essay, will make clear that Gustave Whitehead's efforts failed in essential characteristics to qualify as being The First Flight.

      Merely being off the ground in a winged craft is not sufficient, the machine must be powered and have a functioning control system, which the machine's operator then uses to positively take-off, maneuver with intention, and to land. Gustave Whitehead did not accomplish powered, controlled and sustained flight in his machines, although it must have been exhilarating for him to feel the wind under the wings of his craft, lifting him up, even if only a short distance, and to feel what gliding flight or powered hops were like. To those watching in the early 1900's, it must have seemed a remarkable sight… but, it was not "Flying."

(Excerpted and adbridged from "The Five First Flights," August 2002 WW1 AERO - The Journal Of The Early Aeroplane #177 pp. 26-39)

© 2013 - Carroll F. Gray
Posted : July 22, 2013

How Could "The First Flight" Be Defined ?


      Wilbur Wright’s death on May 30, 1912, has left us to ponder which of these five flights he might have considered to be The First Flight. Indeed, it appears that it was only after Wilbur’s death that the matter of The First Flight became a serious concern. The initial question posed in print had been more in the nature of whether or not the Wrights were first to fly, not which one of the brothers had been first on which flight. Perhaps the importance of identifying The First Flight stemmed from some legal necessity which arose during the long patent wars fought between the Wrights and various of their competitors, most notably Glenn Curtiss. In any event, by 1913 the question relative to the Wrights had become not WHETHER they were the first to fly in a powered controllable aeroplane, but WHICH of them had been first to fly and on which attempt. It is a striking shift in emphasis. Orville had identified The First Flight quite clearly in his own mind, believing without reservation that his own first flight of the 17th had been The First Flight. Writing in the December 1913 issue of Flying magazine (New York), Orville provided his own assessment of the importance of his December 17, 1903, endeavor:

“That flight lasted only 12 seconds, but it was nevertheless - the first time in the history of the world in which a machine carrying a man had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight, had sailed forward without reduction of speed, and had finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.”

      This is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, statements in print identifying Orville’s first flight as The First Flight... something which appears to have not occurred while Wilbur was still living.

      The myth that The Flyer had “raised itself by its own power” (first put forward in the press release issued by the Wrights on January 5, 1904) was reiterated in Orville’s December 1913 article. The Flyer in which Wilbur and Orville made their first attempts at powered flight on December 14th and 17th did not and probably never could raise itself “... by its own power into the air...” something which would have been almost certainly known to both Wilbur and Orville Wright at the time (although it seems to have escaped much subsequent notice or mention). In the absence of the application of wind or gravity (or both) to assist it into the air, the 1903 Wright Flyer was at its very best only capable of making short jumps or hops, just the sort of hops which Wilbur dismissed in 1906 as being “...nothing.” In this regard, Wilbur’s comment bears repeating, “There is all the difference in the world between jumping and flying.” Applied fairly, Orville’s definition excludes all of the Wright flights made that December (indeed, it even excludes the Wright flights made between 1904 and 1909 which utilized a falling-weight catapult for launch) for it includes the phrase “... had raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight...” Mere repetition of the myth of The Flyer’s unassisted take-offs, however, neither constitutes proof nor historical truth.

      The last part of Orville’s definition deserves close consideration, as well, for Orville writes of his first flight that it “... finally landed at a point as high as that from which it started.” This opens up an interesting line of discussion. While that element is meant to exclude gliding from the arena of The First Flight, such an exclusion hardly seems necessary, for gliders were not powered machines. If it were meant to indicate some quality inherent in flight, that also seems peculiar, for wouldn’t a more meaningful statement about relative elevation and flight be “... finally landed at a point higher than that from which it started.”?

      It can be argued that Orville Wright’s widely accepted and often quoted definition from his December 1913 article is seriously (even fatally) flawed in four respects:

      1) it fails to accurately and fairly include (even, it can be argued, seeks to obscure) the role played by wind in launching The Flyer into flight;

      2) it wrongly states that The Flyer had “... raised itself by its own power into the air in full flight.” ;

      3) it assumes that there is some element critical to The First Flight which involves landing at the same level as take-off;

      4) it completely ignores the salient point of control of the aeroplane by the aviator.

      On the third point, consider, for a moment a hypothetical contender for The First Flight... what would be made of a powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight which took off from a location something akin to 20 feet higher than the elevation where it landed, reached an altitude during flight of over 50 feet, and in the interim traversed a mile in controlled, powered flight. Would we exclude that hypothetical flight from consideration as The First Flight solely on the grounds that it landed at a spot lower than where it took off? I think not. In construing historical events, the definitions employed can often be the single most important element in making a judgment about historical matters, and it is difficult to think of another circumstance in which this is more forcefully demonstrated than in the present instance.

      The fourth point is intriguing, for it would be difficult to assert that Orville had actually controlled his first flight of December 17th, and, indeed, in his statement about his first flight he does not state that he did so. Orville did, however, note that on the last flight on the 17th, Wilbur had controlled The Flyer and had flown with “... but little undulation.” Shouldn’t identification and recognition of The First Flight involve the question of whether or not the aviator aboard had actively controlled the machine? It is, in the final analysis, that single element that fully and decisively separates Wilbur’s remarkable 852 foot flight from the other four made that December... Wilbur had controlled, had extended the flight by the use of controls... had flown, the machine for some 400 to 500 feet of its flight. Orville had also been at the controls on his attempts, of course, but he had not controlled the machine, had not flown The Flyer. To Orville’s credit he apparently never stated that he had actually had the machine under control during his “jump,” that was a belief he seemingly left for others to hold and assert.


      The following First Flight definition includes items drawn from the statements and writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright, as well as from the results of my own reflections on the matter, and is proposed for use when considering, characterizing or describing The First Flight.

THE FIRST FLIGHT : The first occasion on which a powered, human-carrying, heavier-than-air machine lifted from the ground into the air by means of the movement of air over a lifting surface or surfaces, remained in flight for a distance exceeding 300 feet under the intentional direction of the aviator aboard through the active use of control mechanisms operated during flight by the aviator, and returned to the ground without injury to the aviator.


      A belief that the Wright brothers, especially Wilbur, had made conscious use of environmental factors such as wind and gravity to assist the take-off of The Flyer could, perhaps, be misunderstood as an attempt to impute an inadequacy of design or engineering. In my view, seeing these matters as they appear to be from the available record can only serve to deepen our appreciation and broaden our understanding of the extraordinary and profound achievement of The First Flight. Looking beyond the conceptual confines of the “machine,” they were able to see The Flyer as a part of the air in which it was built to fly. Not only were they able to endow their Flyer with the ability to fly through the air, but they were also able to draw from the very air and earth part of the means by which they launched their Flyer into full flight. The Wright brothers’ success was therefore as much a success of conception as it was of execution, as much a success of the mind as it was of flight.

      Unfortunately, it seems beyond dispute that Orville’s first flight on the 17th will probably continue to be seen to be The First Flight, although I do not believe that it should continue to be so honored. Orville Wright’s significant contributions in concert with Wilbur Wright’s remarkable, almost intuitive, grasp of aeronautical engineering, and their fascinating and roughly equal collaboration are well documented. Orville’s place in aeronautical history is quite secure. However, simply put, with respect to The First Flight, Wilbur is the right Wright and Orville is the wrong Wright.