In Response to Connecticut State Senator Kevin Kelly's Statement of May 4, 2015 "First in Flight"

Local Politics & Poor History
Posted May 5, 2015

INTRODUCTION: Connecticut State Senator Kelly's Statement, "First in Flight," appeared on his website May 4, 2015. State Sen. Kelly had recently been quoted as saying there was "mounting evidence" that Gustave Whitehead flew in 1901 and 1902, so it was thought that his statement of May 4, 2015, might reveal precisely what that "mounting evidence" consisted of. Instead - and rather remarkably - Sen. Kelley not only fails to mention what the "mounting evidence" he referred to is, but he regurgitates old, tired and discredited arguments as though they were still effective and timely - Sen. Kelly's statement is stale and could have been written two years ago. Sen. Kelly makes several serious errors in what he does say, although it can't be known if he is simply ignorant of the facts or is choosing to intentionally ignore the facts.

State Sen. Kelly's statement appears in BLACK, responses by Carroll F. Gray follow in RED

First in Flight

May 4, 2015

Gustave Whitehead was the first “to take flight”; it happened in Connecticut in 1901, aboard his “No. 21” aircraft.

Merely repeating that "Gustave Whitehead was the first 'to take flight'" doesn't make it so… no matter how many times it's repeated.

Many have tried to say this is not true. But I say Connecticut’s recognition of Gustave Whitehead as “first in powered flight”, rights the wrong in our nation’s history.

The people who say Whitehead didn't fly base their statements on facts, on evidence, on documented evidence. The people who advocate for Whitehead base their claims on an anonymous 1901 article in the Sunday Bridgeport Herald written by someone who wanted to remain anonymous, which might be because the August 18, 1901, Sunday Bridgeport Herald article was a rewrite of an article which appeared 10 weeks earlier in the New York SUN. The August 18, 1901, Herald article was not original reporting.
History is constantly evolving. We are constantly learning new things about our past. Sometimes, we even learn that there are errors in our history. We owe it to our nation to make corrections and set the record straight when needed.

While it's certainly true that history is not fixed, that it does evolve, it is also true it evolves due to previously unknown evidence, to newly discovered facts. Repeating the same old tired arguments does nothing to advance our understanding of history. Reading State Sen. Kelly's statement, it's obvious that he lacks fundamental knowledge of the topic, perhaps State Sen. Kelly's aides have not been diligent enough in seeking the truth of the Whitehead story.
People used to think the world was flat. We know now that’s not true. People still think Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, even though it was already well established before his legendary “key-and-kite” experiment. History is like a game of telephone sometimes. Over the years, many stories and accounts are told and retold and sometimes errors emerge and stick around.

No, State Sen. Kelly, History is NOT "…like a game of telephone sometimes." History is the analysis of facts and evidence and documented material, not merely one person repeating what they believe they've heard. Actually, State Sen. Kelly says something completely relevant to the Whitehead story when he writes "Over the years, many stories and accounts are told and retold and sometimes errors emerge and stick around." That is the perfect comment to make about all the witness statements supporting Whitehead, giving their statements many decades after the events they believe they recall. That is one reason why contemporary written and physical evidence is so important when considering whether this or that event truly happened… and that is also why "eyewitness" recollections - especially of events from many decades earlier - are seldom given much weight in courts of law.
Gustave Whitehead is an important aviation pioneer in American history who has been overlooked for far too long. As German immigrant who came to the United States in 1893, he embodied the American dream and spirit of innovation. While many have tried to deny the legitimacy of Whitehead’s inventions and first flights, Connecticut has officially recognized Whitehead as “first in powered flight, ahead of the Wrights”; credit that has been embraced by the entire Connecticut General Assembly and Governor. This year, I am fighting for a bill, to establish a “Gustave Whitehead Day” in Connecticut, to be celebrated every year on August 14th.

It's difficult to make the case that Gustave Whitehead "…has been overlooked for far too long." Judging from the four books and one novel I am aware of, as well as another book due out this year, and the miles of writing about Whitehead that have consumed the past years, I don't think State Sen. Kelly can reasonably believe that Whitehead has been "overlooked."

The situation, State Sen. Kelly, is not that "…many have tried to deny the legitimacy of Whitehead’s inventions and first flights…" the situation is that those who advocate for Whitehead continue to fail to produce documented hard evidence that he did what is claimed. The "blurry photo" that John Brown declared showed Whitehead making a flight in 1901 has been proven to be a photo of a John J. Montgomery glider on display in May of 1905. The March 2013 pro-Whitehead editorial in Jane's All The World's Aircraft has been (as of April 2015) disowned by that publication's owner and publisher. The "evidence" touted by John Brown about Whitehead has been shown to be a jumble of errors and mis-statements… and, yes, to repeat, the anonymous August 18, 1901, Sunday Bridgeport Herald article about Whitehead has been shown to be a re-write of an earlier article from another newspaper.

History is commonly not the product of committee hearings in state legislatures, fair-minded people leave history to historians, and, yes, historians often have differing perspectives, but the overwhelming majority of aviation historians discount the Whitehead story as a myth, and the famed historian called "America's Greatest Historian," David McCullough, dismisses the Whitehead story as being fictional.

There's no harm in celebrating historical figures with annual recognition events, but there is real harm done when factual evidence is ignored and erroneous half-truths are accepted as evidence and then passed along to the public by respected elected officials as being true.
Whitehead actually made numerous short flights in Bridgeport, Fairfield, and Stratford Connecticut in 1901-1902, observed by at least a dozen local residents, each of whom later signed sworn affidavits. On August 14th, 1901, a respected newspaper editor observed Whitehead make a half mile flight, 50 feet in the air. This became the first true sustained, manned, powered, controlled flight of an airplane – which occurred two years before the Wright brothers flew in Kitty Hawk, N.C. This was documented on August 18th in the Bridgeport Herald, a Sunday newspaper.

Well, we've gone from the usual claims of two flights made by Whitehead - one in August of 1901 and one in January of 1902 - to "… numerous short flights in Bridgeport, Fairfield, and Stratford Connecticut in 1901-1902…" No evidence of that assertion is offered by State Sen. Kelly, except for the recollections, made many decades after the supposed events, of people who claimed to have witnessed those events.

State Sen. Kelly hasn't yet caught on that the August 18, 1901, Sunday Bridgeport Herald article about Whitehead was anonymous, and repeats the fabrication that "… a respected newspaper editor observed Whitehead make a half mile flight, 50 feet in the air." There is not a whit of a tiddle of evidence that any "respected newspaper editor" claimed to have been present when the supposed flight is said to have taken place.
The stories of Whitehead’s flights have been celebrated over the years, but they have also been lost to the most popular historic aviation records. Yet, there is still strong documentation and growing recognition that we cannot turn our backs on.

The reason why Whitehead's story fails to appear in historical records, is that there is virtually no evidence that he ever made even one flight, much less numerous flights. Whitehead's investors were disenchanted when he failed to produce a working machine, and at least one sued Whitehead for what amounted to a fraud, and won.

State Sen. Kelly says "Yet, there is still strong documentation and growing recognition that we cannot turn our backs on." but fails to tell us what that "… strong documentation …" consists of. What are you talking about, State Sen. Kelly ?
In 1937, Stella Randolph wrote the book The Lost Flights of Gustave Whitehead after interviewing his family, friends and workers who helped build the “No. 21” airplane and later designs. Maj. William J. O’Dwyer of Fairfield researched Whitehead for 45 years, becoming a world authority; his documented findings are at the Fairfield Museum. More recently, John Brown, a pilot, airplane instructor and builder, and aviation historian, has also conducted research and connected with the Smithsonian. He has uncovered hundreds of newspaper articles from around the world which reported Whitehead flights in 1901-1902. His efforts led to the public support of the Whitehead accounts by “Jane’s All the Worlds Aircraft” – the leading aviation reference.

Maj. William O'Dwyer's research archive is at the Fairfield Museum, yes, but it is unavailable to anyone who believes Whitehead did not fly… and there is the matter of the punitive fee imposed by O'Dwyer for using his research material. It is a suspicious situation and has led to speculation as to what, exactly, O'Dwyer's archive contains.

A great deal of John Brown's material supporting the Whitehead claims has been disproven or shown to be misleading or erroneous. His two most well-known accomplishments have turned to dust during these past two years since he announced them. His "forensic photo analysis" of a "blurry image" has been proven to be a photo of a Montgomery glider on display in May of 1905, not of Whitehead in flight in 1901, as he proclaimed, and the March 2013 Jane's editorial which his efforts prompted has been repudiated by the owner and publisher of Jane's.

Brown's one remaining contribution is the use of digital databases to locate dozens of rewrites and reprints of the August 18, 1901, Sunday Bridgeport Herald article, which was itself - ironically - a rewrite, as previously mentioned, but large numbers of reprints can never turn a falsehood into a truth.
Despite the evidence, doubters still exist, including one of the most respected voices in American history: the Smithsonian. But while the Smithsonian is trusted, we have to look at their statements quizzically. In the book History by Contract (1978) by Major William O’Dwyer and Stella Randolph, a contract was revealed between the Smithsonian and the estate of Orville Wright which requires that the Smithsonian maintain recognition of the Wrights as first in flight in order to keep possession of the Wright Flyer.

The "contract" - more correctly termed an "Agreement" - was hardly a secret, it was included in the probate records of Orville Wright's estate and was known to relate to the Langley Large Aerodrome "A" of 1903, which had been displayed for many years at what was then called the "National Museum" with a label that wrongly proclaimed that the Langley machine had been capable of human flight, which rightfully irked Orville Wright and those who knew better. The notorious 1914 experiments at Hammondsport by Glenn Curtiss and others, including Wright arch-enemy A. Zahm, proved nothing about how capable of flight the Langley Large Aerodrome "A" had been in 1903, since the machine was significantly modified and strengthened for the 1914 tests. The Agreement between (as the Agreement reads) the "United States of America" and the estate of Orville Wright is generally believed by legal scholars to be unenforceable, a fact which was likely known to the parties who signed it. The most material and significant effect of that Agreement (in addition to changing the wording on the label of the Langley Large Aerodrome "A") was to provide a tax benefit to Orville Wright's estate and heirs, so they would not be required to pay inheritance taxes on the priceless Wright 1903 Flyer.
This agreement over the years has led to an almost complete disappearance of recognition for Whitehead’s contributions. In 2013, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum discussed the existence of such a contract and Senior Curator Tom Crouch released a statement saying, “The contract remains in force today, a healthy reminder of a less than exemplary moment in Smithsonian history…I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer”. I believe it is time for them to show their courage and honesty.

Dr. Crouch stated "I can only hope that, should persuasive evidence for a prior flight be presented, my colleagues and I would have the courage and the honesty to admit the new evidence and risk the loss of the Wright Flyer." If Whitehead advocates had such persuasive evidence, I have not a hint of a doubt that what Dr. Crouch states would be true. The simple and unavoidable fact is that Whitehead advocates have not presented and still do not present persuasive evidence. What they have presented is a mish-mash of convoluted thinking, erroneous interpretations, an utterly discredited "forensic photo analysis," the March 2013 Jane's editorial which has since been repudiated by the owner and publisher of Jane's, hoaxed photos of gliders, faulty recollections made decades after the supposed events, and wild claims made by Whitehead himself.

Since State Sen. Kelly has taken the lead on advocating for the Whitehead claims, perhaps he can offer persuasive new evidence (or even the "mounting evidence" he spoke of), yet I doubt any such evidence will be forthcoming, since it seems quite certain that none exists.

As for "honesty and courage," State Sen. Kelly might someday soon need to muster up his own "honesty and courage" and admit that this all was a great mistake, as the Whitehead Myth continues to collapse around him.

In addition to the research and the questionable relationship that has preserved the Wright brother’s place in history as told by the Smithsonian, all physical evidence points to Whitehead’s early successes. While aviation technology looks very different today, Whitehead’s “No. 21” aircraft was where it all began. Shaped with bamboo ribs and bat-like wings, running on acetylene gas, the “No. 21” looked like a broad glider. But it flew and it was first. Careful reconstructions of this aircraft, true to the original design and engine power have also flown in the United States and abroad, up to a half mile, further solidifying the facts.

This paragraph of State Sen. Kelly's statement is - perhaps - the most erroneous of all. Whitehead's most well-known machine, his "No. 21," was derived from the work and designs of other, earlier, aviation enthusiasts and experimenters, notably Count d'Esterno (1864) and the Lilienthal brothers, Gustav and Otto (mid-1890's), so it is wrong to say that "Whitehead’s 'No. 21' aircraft was where it all began."

The most astonishing lapse that State Sen. Kelly makes is in stating that "Careful reconstructions of this aircraft, true to the original design and engine power have also flown in the United States and abroad, up to a half mile, further solidifying the facts." The truth is that the reconstructions of "No.21" meant to attempt flight have all used modern high-revving engines and modern highly-efficient propellers (none have tried to use an acetylene engine turning a copy of the propellers Whitehead had on his machine), as well as modern flight controls and additional wing bracing to prevent them from collapsing like an umbrella in a windstorm, when in flight.

Also, none of the people who have tried to fly in the modern versions of "No. 21" have wanted to fly their machines while standing, using only shifting body weight to control the machine in flight… the reason is quite obvious, they wanted to come through the experience still alive. However, Gustave Whitehead said that he controlled his "No. 21" while standing, shifting his body weight to control his machine - an impossibility.
While the Wright Brothers have consistently been recognized for their contributions to aviation development, we cannot ignore another major piece of our history – a piece that has gone under the radar and has been left out of the history books for far too long.

Gustave Whitehead's story has not "… gone under the radar …" it's very well known, but that does not make it true, and the reason his story has not been included in factual history books is simply that all of the flight claims made by him and on his behalf have been false.