Were The Wright Brothers First In Flight? Research Suggests First Pilot May Have Been In CT

5:48 PM, Apr 1, 2013   |    comments
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(CBS News) The Wright flyer, the main attraction at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is the legendary aircraft that is thought to be the first aircraft to fly back in 1903 in North Carolina.

Or was it?

Now an announcement may be putting that history up in the air.

The Wright Brothers have been called the fathers of aviation, brothers whose lift-off above a sand dune in Kitty Hawk, N. C., 110 years ago radically changed the course of the 20th century.

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

But what if conventional history is wrong? What if the Brothers Wright weren't the first in flight after all?

Andy Kosch has spent the last 30 years spreading the word of Connecticut's aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead. Kosch said of Whitehead, "He was a German immigrant who came to Bridgeport around 1900 and built an airplane and that airplane flew in 1901."

Kosch even built a replica of No. 21, the aircraft he says Whitehead piloted on August 14, 1901 and flew one-and-a-half miles some 50 feet above Bridgeport.

Kosch said, "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."

Now Kosch's belief has some serious backing, from the publication known as the bible of aviation, Jane's All the World's Aircraft.

In the 100th anniversary edition of the publication, 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 aviation historian John Brown, evidence he uploaded to a website. It includes newspaper accounts and historical photographs, which researchers believe shows Whitehead in flight.

But Crouch isn't buying the evidence. "He had actually found a photograph inside a photograph that showed a Whitehead machine in the air," he said. "So that doesn't convince me."

It did convince the Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. 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 the fight to the tarmac in 1987 in order to prove his replica of Whitehead's craft was airworthy.

Asked what that moment was like for him, he said, "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," Crouch said. "You see this intellectual process that they went through. You can trace it."

For Whitehead proponents, the tinkerer from Bridgeport was extraordinary, too, and they hope this pronouncement secures his place in the annals of history.

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