(CT Post, Wednesday, July 31, 2013)
Who flew first? Order the new book “Gustave Whitehead: First in Flight” to find out!
The preponderance of the evidence makes it clear Gustave Whitehead made a significant number of successful powered flights in Connecticut predating the Wrights by at least two years. The evidence includes an eyewitness journalist account, journalists who were eyewitnesses to photos of Whitehead in powered flight, and close to a score of affidavits and statements from eyewitnesses to the powered flights.
The Smithsonian Institution has done everything possible for the past 112 years to avoid giving Whitehead recognition — first, so it could claim that its Secretary Langley should receive credit, and then, dropping that stance, in 1948 it gave improper credit to Orville Wright, posthumously in a legal maneuver, in order to gain the Wright Flyer as an exhibit for $1. Admitting that Whitehead flew first is impossible for its staff, or they will lose the Wright Flyer, their premiere exhibit, which will return to Orville’s heirs, per the contract. In addition, Smithsonian hired and promoted Tom Crouch, a native of the Wrights’ home town of Dayton, Ohio, and friend to the Wright family, as head curator and author of numerous books regaling the Wright brothers as first in flight.
In addition, the curators have to know that if Whitehead had been accepted as first in flight, at least during the so-called “patent wars” of the Wrights, this could have undermined the broad terms of the “pioneer invention” patents finally obtained by the Wrights based on being first in flight. Though no longer in force, there could be ramifications if the Wrights were seen to have merely improved upon the art, rather than creating an entirely new invention. Thus, it is no wonder that Orville was so quick to claim, in 1945, that Whitehead’s flights never occurred. It is no wonder that the patent case ended before Whitehead could be put on as a witness for Glenn Curtiss, as was being contemplated by his attorneys.
It is our position that Smithsonian has continued to ignore Whitehead’s accomplishments, inappropriately. Since the denial of Whitehead’s accomplishments by Smithsonian has existed for 112 years, the Connecticut state Legislature and governor have very appropriately, on a number of occasions over the past 60 years, recognized Whitehead’s early flights and his importance as an early aviation pioneer.
Unreasonably, Smithsonian demands a photo of Whitehead in flight. If this were necessary, the famed photo of the Wright Flyer raised 18 inches in the air would not qualify, because it barely got off the ground in the photo, traveled only a hundred feet afterwards, out of control, and smashed into the sand. Smithsonian demands documentation, even though the documentation that exists for the Wrights does not include eyewitness affidavits, nor any concrete information except for diary entries and other documents written by the Wrights themselves.
With regards to the missing photos of Whitehead in flight that were known to exist, these appear to have been lost or destroyed over the past century. However, the William Hammer collection of photos, displayed at the First Annual Aero Club Exhibition of Aeronautical Apparatus of January 1906, included a photo of Whitehead’s plane in flight, according to the Scientific American: “A single blurred photograph of a large birdlike machine propelled by compressed air, and which was constructed by Whitehead in 1901, was the only other photograph besides that of Langley’s machines of a motor-driven aeroplane in successful flight” (Scientific American, Jan. 27, 1906). The wall with the Whitehead photos was labeled “Collection of Pictures Presented by William J. Hammer.”
For decades, the original photo of Whitehead in flight displayed in that exhibit has been sought after, to no avail. It is more than likely that the photograph of Whitehead’s plane in flight was part of the William J. Hammer collection of aviation photographs locked away at the National Air and Space Museum, for three decades, following its donation to Smithsonian in 1962 by IBM.
The Smithsonian Institution has grossly abdicated its responsibilities by ignoring the Whitehead evidence, engaging instead in a century of attacking and ridiculing Whitehead, then his researchers, and the nearly 20 eyewitnesses to his flights, and likely hiding the very photo evidence they demand as proof.
We demand an independent audit and search of the Smithsonian and interviews with all staff associated with NASM to determine the location of that photograph. We demand an investigation into the Smithsonian’s culpability in misleading the American public by unprofessionally offering historical recognition “for sale” on its premises, to the exclusion of those who truly deserve it, and defending this as appropriate. We demand an investigation into the Board of Regents’ conduct in not taking action to ensure the integrity of the Smithsonian.
There is ample evidence that Whitehead was first in powered flight, ahead of the Wrights. There is ample evidence that Whitehead contributed to the initial body of knowledge that led to further development of the art by subsequent inventors such as the Wrights. Whitehead and his descendants deserve his recognition and a national place of honor in the history of early aviation. The eyewitnesses to his flights and their descendants deserve our respect.
The American public deserves accuracy, integrity and professionalism in its historical institutions, rather than shameful conduct. The state of Connecticut deserves to honor its aviation pioneer without attacks and ridicule. Whitehead clearly predated the Wrights; it is time to recognize that fact.
“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained. ” (Ghandi)