Contract Proving Wright Brothers Were First To Fly Called Into Question
April 2, 2013

Contract Proving Wright Brothers Were First To Fly Called Into Question

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

The Wright Flyer, also known as Flyer I or 1903 Flyer, was the first successful powered aircraft to fly, achieving the feat on December 17, 1903. The plane was designed and built by the Wright brothers and it was flown four times near Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

According to the US Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, which houses the infamous plane, they describe the aircraft as ““¦the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard.”

However, while the Smithsonian, as well as most history books, would lead us to believe that Orville and Wilbur Wright were the first to successfully fly a powered aircraft, at least one aviation historian claims this is not the case.

A 1948 contract between the estate of Orville Wright and the Smithsonian legally binds the museum to call the Wright brothers first in flight.

The contract (in-part) reads: “Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors, nor any museum or other agency ... or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight.”

The full contract is available at

Now, 110 years after the two brothers flew into history and became known as the fathers of aviation, the Smithsonian has publicly released the 1948 contract, and is ready to let the world make its own decision on the fate of the history of flight.

"The Wright Brothers are the root of everything that's happened in flight since their time," said Tom Crouch, senior curator and historian for Smithsonian.

But what if the history is wrong? What if Orville and Wilbur were not the first in flight after all?

Andy Kosch, the aviation historian who questioned the validity of the Wright brothers´ claim, has spent the past 30 years trying to catapult another aviation pioneer into the limelight as the world´s first flyer.

Gustave Whitehead “was a German immigrant who came to Bridgeport [Connecticut] around 1900 and built an airplane and that airplane flew in 1901,” explained Kosch, who built a replica of the No. 21 aircraft he claims Whitehead piloted on August 14, 1901, flying one-and-a-half miles about 50 feet over Bridgeport.

“I'm not saying Whitehead's plane was better than the Wright Brothers, but it flew and it was controllable, and he got off two years before the Wright Brothers and he should get credit,” Kosch told CBS News.

Kosch´s claims are now receiving serious attention, along with some serious backing from the publication Jane´s All the World´s Aircraft, known as the bible of aviation.

In the publication´s 100th anniversary edition, editor Paul Jackson said, “An injustice is rectified with only slight bruising to Wilbur and Orville's reputation. The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead.”

Jackson pointed to research unearthed by another aviation historian, John Brown. That evidence, which can be found at, includes newspaper accounts and historical photographs which presumably show Whitehead in flight.

Crouch, however, does not concur with that evidence.

“He had actually found a photograph inside a photograph that showed a Whitehead machine in the air“¦ So that doesn't convince me,” he said.

Brown said the Smithsonian is bound by the contract to ignore Whitehead´s feat. But it is time for that contract to go, he said in a letter he wrote to the Smithsonian´s senior curator last week: “With apologies to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev: ... Mr. Crouch, tear up that contract!”

When the contract was signed in 1948 between executors of Orville Wright's estate and the museum, ownership of the Wright Flyer was transferred from London´s Science Museum to the Smithsonian for $1 with the stipulation the Wright plane must always be recognized as the first true airplane.

The contract, despite any evidence currently showing otherwise, still holds true, Crouch said in a recent blog post.

Peter Jakab, associate director of curatorial affairs for the Smithsonian, said the Smithsonian has been involved in pioneering efforts to achieve flight since the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the Smithsonian had one airplane that was created by the museum on display back in the teens, labeled as the “first airplane capable of flight.”

“That was a very misleading statement,” Jakab told And it was one that angered Orville and affected Orville very deeply.

This is how London´s Science Museum came into possession of the famed Wright Flyer. In protest, Orville sent the plane to London in 1928, with the help of Charles Lindbergh. The plane remained in London until 1942 when the museum published an extensive article about the Smithsonian´s Langley plane that set the record straight.

“The plane was put in storage during World War II at a quarry with the Magna Carta and the crown jewels. After the war, arrangements were made to bring it back,” Jakab said.

The arrangements were made between the executors of Orville´s estate and the Smithsonian. To avoid paying high taxes on the transfer of ownership, a contract was signed.

“The executors put in the agreement a label that always would be displayed with the flyer “¦ directed toward the Langley issue,” Jakab told

Jakab argued what is most important is not who flew the first plane, but rather the legacy left by the Wright´s design.

“[The Wright Flyer] was able to evolve into something we have today. And that´s its real powerful significance -- in addition to being the first to fly,” he said.

As for Gustave Whitehead being the first to fly, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch is convinced. He helped establish a memorial to Whitehead back in 2010.

“It's a little bit of a David and Goliath,” he said. “We know we're up against big odds. We're taking on the Smithsonian, the definitive word in American history. But they're wrong, and Gustave Whitehead had no way to defend himself.”

Kosch took his replica No. 21 to flight in 1987 in order to prove Whitehead´s craft was airworthy. When asked what that moment was like for him, he answered, “It was amazing, because I felt like Gustave Whitehead.”

Crouch said he thinks Whitehead was “a really interesting guy,” but added, “I don´t think he flew before the Wright Brothers.”

“With the Wright Brothers, you have this super solid foundation“¦ You see this intellectual process that they went through. You can trace it,” he said.

But proponents of Whitehead hope he can have a place in history, as his accomplishments were also extraordinary and well deserved.