Saturday, Jul 23, 2016
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Flight of fancy

Revisionists still busy with Wright Brothers stake in history

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In this undated file photo, Orville and Wilbur Wright test their airplane on a North Carolina beach.

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An airplane made by two bicycle mechanics from Dayton flew for 120 feet on Dec. 17, 1903, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. That made the Wright brothers immortal, for their historic achievement of the first manned, powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine.

But in time for the 110th anniversary of that well-documented feat, the revisionists are busy. Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy has signed a law recognizing a German immigrant, Gustave Whitehead, as the real claimant to the first powered airplane flight carrying a person, thanks to a flight he supposedly made near Bridgeport, Conn., on Aug. 14, 1901 — two years before the Wrights.

This is not a new claim; over the years, many experts have discounted it. The only photograph is said to be inconclusive, and a contemporary account in a Bridgeport newspaper of a 10-minute flight appears too sensational to be true. But an Australian historian has revived the claim, and the authoritative Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft supports it.

This is going down like a lead glider in Ohio (license plate: “Birthplace of Aviation”) and in North Carolina (“First in Flight”). Now Pittsburgh is advancing an even earlier claim.

Part of the Gustave Whitehead story is that he lived in Pittsburgh for a time, and that in 1899 he and a companion supposedly (that word again) made a half-mile flight in the city. The plane, propelled by a steam engine, was said to have crashed into a building, causing the assistant to be scalded by steam. There is no contemporary newspaper account of the event.

Mr. Whitehead deserves credit as an aviation pioneer. But if the Pittsburgh flight sounds fanciful — and it does — it’s a fair bet the one in Bridgeport was too. Whatever Connecticut says, the Wright brothers’ fame remains sky-high.

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