Did the "First Flight" Happen in North Carolina or Connecticut?

Mar 14, 2013

North Carolina and the famous Wright brothers are known for being “first in flight.” But Connecticut has been in an ongoing battle for that status. Some historians argue that German immigrant Gustave Whitehead made the first flight in 1901 in Bridgeport. New research this week provides more evidence in favor of Whitehead.

Historians and aviation enthusiasts have argued about Gustave Whitehead for decades. Allegedly, Whitehead flew half a mile in a Model 21 airplane on August 14, 1901, at an altitude of 50 feet, in Bridgeport – or what was then technically Fairfield. That’s more than two years before the Wright brothers’ famous 1903 flight in North Carolina. Allegedly is the key word here.

“The jury is still out as to whether or not he actually did get into the air, especially for the lengths of time that he claimed," says Carl Stidsen, a librarian at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks. He was speaking to The Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR in 2011.

Skeptics of Whitehead’s achievement say the proof is too reliant on press reports of a supposed photo taken of the flight.  No one knew where the original photo actually was. And John Brown, a project manager for an aircraft construction company in Germany, decided to find out.

“It was described in words by press reports, but it’s never been seen since 1906," Brown says. 

Until now. Brown says he’s found the original photo. He’s also found more articles in publications like the Bridgeport Herald and others across the world that covered this so-called first flight. This is a big deal because it’s prompted an internationally-renowned aviation magazine called Jane’s All The World Airplanes to also say that Whitehead, and not the Wright brothers, was first in flight.

Bridgeport officials are ecstatic at the news. North Carolina, not so much. And the Smithsonian, too, has always been defensive of the Wright brothers, given the institution’s ties to them. Whoever’s right, the new discovery is sure to spark fierce debate again about who was first in flight.