Ohio and North Carolina drew a line on the tarmac Thursday in the fight over who was first to make a powered airplane flight.
Ohio license plates proclaim the state is the “Birthplace of Aviation” while North Carolina tags say the state is “First in Flight.” Connecticut believes both are wrong.
There, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law this summer saying German-born aviator and Bridgeport, Conn., resident Gustave Whitehead was the first to make a powered flight.
The state went on record saying Whitehead made his flight in 1901 — two years before Wilbur and Orville Wright lifted off on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The brothers were from Ohio.
On Thursday, Ohio state Rep. Rick Perales and North Carolina state Sen. Bill Cook held news conferences in their respective states to dispute Connecticut’s action and reassert that the Wright Brothers were first.
“It’s important to protect the truth,” said Cook, whose district includes the Outer Banks. “Nowadays it seems like there are an awful lot of people who are trying to rewrite history.”
“If the Connecticut legislature hadn’t changed the law to acknowledge Whitehead as the first in flight, I think we would have just let it slide,” said Perales, whose district includes Huffman Prairie, where the Wright Brothers tested their planes.
Recent interest in Whitehead came as a documentary aired in the spring by an Australian historian, John Brown, who reviewed photographs, documents and newspaper articles to make his determination that Whitehead was first.
After looking at the research, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, an industry publication, agreed.
In the summer, as Connecticut passed its measure, Tom Crouch, senior curator for aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution, said Whitehead’s backers were “absolutely wrong.” The Wrights’ plane is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.
“Whitehead’s legend has spawned much speculation and hearsay,” Crouch said then. “People who have looked at this over the years … almost unanimously reject the claim.”
But the Smithsonian is forbidden by a contract with the Wright brothers’ estate to admit that anyone else was the first to fly, in part because they had previously fought off other claims.
Both lawmakers said the Whitehead claim is based on a grainy photo that is inconclusive.