“First in flight” honor moves from Kitty Hawk to … Bridgeport?

Move over, North Carolina. There is new validation of decades-old claims that the first powered, sustained and controlled flight took place in Bridgeport, Conn., rather than Kitty Hawk.

The pronouncement has Bridgeport's mayor ecstatically recommending that the state get new license plates reading "First-er in Flight."

New research this week prompted the internationally-renowned publication Jane's All the World Aircraft to announce in its 100th edition that it would reassign the "first in flight" title from the Wright brothers to German-born aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead and his plane

Gustave Whitehead and his ''Condor.'' Photo courtesy of Deutsches Flugpioniermuseum Gustav Weißkopf

Since that announcement on Monday, excitement in Bridgeport and Fairfield -- where the true "first flights" apparently took place -- has been palpable.

"Certainly, we'll have plenty of time to argue over whose flight was longer, who had more amenities, who was the first one to have in-flight air-service," joked Fairfield First Selectman Michael Tetreau alongside Bridgeport's Mayor Bill Finch.

Tetreau and Finch are among many who have long contended that Whitehead beat the Wright brothers by two years with a half-mile-long flight in his Model 21 airplane. The "Condor" reportedly rose about 50 feet in the air on its flight and executed two turns on August 14, 1901.

But only now, the Bridgeport officials say, does the evidence seem irrefutable, if the aviation authority Jane's All the World Aircraft confirms it. The book's editor Paul Jackson was convinced by the discovery of a supposedly never-before-seen 1901 photo and dozens of old newspaper articles sent to him by John Brown, a hobby historian who works at an aircraft construction company in northern Germany.

"Jane's doesn't just change their mind on a whim," Tetreau said. "This is the real thing."

There's talk of serving "Whitehead bratwurst" and erecting new museum exhibits. At least one restaurant, Chip's Pancake House in Fairfield, will be serving a German-inspired "Number 21" breakfast, named after the model of Whitehead's airplane.

But debate over who was "first in flight" rages on. The Smithsonian Institution, whose Air and Space museum is built around the legend of the Wright Brothers, is firm in its position that Orville and Wilbur deserve the honor.

"I'm certainly not in doubt, and I don't think any of my colleagues would be in doubt," said Peter Jakab, associate director of the Air and Space museum. "I've looked at the evidence quite carefully over the past 30 years that I've been doing this, and...there just isn't any credible evidence [supporting Whitehead]."

Jakab said he finds Jane's decision to credit Whitehead with the first flight "a little puzzling." The newly-discovered photo of the supposed flight is "very, very indistinct," he said, and press reports at the time were often exaggerated or based on unreliable sources. Perhaps more importantly, he added, Whitehead's famous moments didn't last; there's no evidence of him developing the technology of his first flight past the early 1900s.

"Why does he abandon it? Why does he not develop it? Why do his financial supporters not seize upon that and help him develop it?" Jakab asked. "Why are there no clear existing photographs of the airplane in flight?"

Indeed, the photo John Brown recently came across in a dusty file box in the attic of a German museum is small and blurry. It is actually a photo shown within another photo, displaying a panorama from a 1906 exhibition. Brown first looked at it with a magnifying glass, then digitally enlarged it by 3,500 percent to determine that it showed Whitehead's Model 21 airplane in flight. Some early press reports describe the photo, but the actual image was never produced.

Still, Brown says, he confirmed the contents of the photo with two "experts" -- including an analyst for the state police in Bavaria. Combined with press reports of the time from the Bridgeport Herald and other newspapers that he found, Brown says, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of Whitehead.

"The burden of the proof now is for the Wright people, or the Whitehead opponents to now prove, OK, it's not the photo," Brown said. "And to now prove the 86 journalists were lying, and to prove the four journalists who described having seen the photo that they were also lying."

With the amount of evidence he discovered, Brown said, "If this was a court case and somebody was accused of murder... there is no way the person would get off."

In another twist, Brown, other historians, and Finch and Tetreau argue that the Smithsonian is hamstrung by a long-standing contract with the Wright brothers to always assert that they were first in flight.

The Smithsonian paid $1 for the Wright airplane under the agreement that it would not "publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."

In other words, said Brown, "The Smithsonian is never allowed to state that anyone flew before the Wright brothers. It's right there in black and white...otherwise they lost their most valuable exhibit."

Jakab said the agreement has a complicated history, stemming partly from the fact that the Smithsonian at one time mis-labeled a different airplane as being the first in flight.

"The agreement says what it says, and it does exist," Jakab said. But it would never stop the Smithsonian from becoming a "Whitehead supporter" should "credible evidence" present itself, he said.

Asked if he thought the museum could actually lose the Wright airplane if his position ever changed, he said, "We would have to see what would happen. That would be up to... the current heirs of the Wright family, and the people who control the Wright estate, and how they respond to that."

Finch, Tetreau and Brown don't buy Jakab's claim to objectivity. They say the Smithsonian refuses to believe the truth, having built an empire around the Wright brothers -- who Finch calls "part of the established elite," thereby trumping the scrappy, poor industrial worker Gustave Whitehead.

"Because he was poor, and he didn't have a publicist, and he moved around a lot...[he] was cheated by history," Finch said.

"Until now."

Correction: An earlier version of the story implied that Michael Tetreau is first selectman of Bridgeport. In fact, he is first selectman of Fairfield. The story has been amended to makes this clear.