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Jack Smith

The brothers got the credit, but what about all those others with the Wright stuff?

December 15, 1986|Jack Smith

There is no profit in trying to change a myth.

I questioned the other day that the Wright brothers should be honored as the first men to fly when four or five other madmen had flown in heavier-than-air machines before them.

I also noted that in giving the Wrights credit, history cites their first flight near Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903. This, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was "the first controlled man-carrying mechanical flight in history."

That flight lasted 12 seconds. I merely wondered how it could be certified as controlled and "sustained," to add the Smithsonian Institute's word, if it lasted only 12 seconds.

Eugene B. Wilstach of Murietta Hot Springs, who seems to be an authority on early flight, notes that although the first flight lasted only 12 seconds, the Wright brothers made three more successful flights on the same day, the longest going 852 feet in 59 seconds.

I knew that, of course. But why, then, isn't that longer flight called history's first "sustained, controlled, powered, manned and heavier-than-air flight," rather than the 12-second one?

In effect, the longer flight validated the 12-second flight; but I doubt that the Wrights could be honored as history's first heavier-than-air fliers for that first flight alone. Of course, since their machine did fly longer that day, it is picayunish to deny them the honor.

Ironically, Wilstach himself points out that the Wrights were jealous of their rivals.

As I have written, on Dec. 8, 1903, just nine days before the Wrights' flights, a gasoline-powered plane built by Samuel Langley and piloted by his young assistant, Charles Manley, damaged a wing on launch and crashed into the Potomac.

Wilstach recalls that in 1903 this plane, known as Langley's Aerodrome, was placed on display in the Smithsonian, and in 1925 the label was changed to read:

"Langley Aerodrome. The original Langley flying machine of 1903. Restored. In the opinion of many competent to judge, this was the first heavier-than-air craft in the history of the world capable of sustained free flight under its own power, carrying a man. This aircraft slightly antedated the machine designed and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, which, on Dec. 17, 1903, was the first in the history of the world to accomplish sustained free flight under its own power, carrying a man." Wilstach says the label went on to state that the Aerodrome's launching failure had been due to "imperfect operation of the catapult, and that the tests made later by (Glenn) Curtiss at Hammondsport, N.Y., indicated the original machine would have flown in 1903 if it had been successfully launched."

Close, but no banana.

But this qualified recognition of Langley's plane was regarded as an insult by Orville, the surviving Wright. He took the Kitty Hawk Flyer out of the Smithsonian and shipped it to the Science Museum in London, where it remained, Wilstach tells us, "until an older and wiser Smithsonian modified its stance, made many apologies, and agreed to write labels for the Flyer that would clearly indicate its primacy. Peace was restored, and in 1948 the Flyer was returned to the Smithsonian." (Orville died that year.)

The myth, Wilstach says, is that others flew before the Wrights. "There is nothing new in presenting the names of Brodbeck, Whitehead, Custead, Pearse and Gilmore as having flown before Dec. 17, 1903. The only problem is that there is no proof that any of them actually flew; conversely, at this date there is no way to prove that they did not fly."

There's the rub.

David Clark Argall of La Puente argues that the "myth" of the Wrights is at worst "effectively true," because from their flights "we can trace all succeeding aviation.

"They were the ones who made flight a part of our lives, the ones who changed it from impossible (at least by then current technology in the eyes of reasonable, or too cautious, men) to reality. They were the first. Any others might as well have never happened."

That's what I don't like about it: "Any others might as well have never happened."

But what if they did happen? Are they to be swept under the Smithsonian's rug because the eyes of the world were not focused on them, and they did not lead directly to further advances?

Take the case of Gustave Whitehead, a Bavarian immigrant, who took off near Bridgeport, Conn., in his two-engine acetylene-powered monoplane and flew for half a mile, landing safely. That was on Aug. 12, 1901, two years, four months and five days before Kitty Hawk. Richard Howell, editor of the Bridgeport Sunday Herald, watched this flight and reported it in his newspaper.

On Aug. 19 the New York Herald reported the story under this headline: "Gustave Whitehead Travels Half a Mile in Flying Machine Operated by a New Acetylene Pressure."

The story began: "Mr. Whitehead last Wednesday, with two assistants, took his machine to a long field back of Fairfield and the inventor flew in his machine for half a mile. It worked perfectly and the operator found no difficulty in handling it. . . . "

An account of the flight was also published that same day in the reputable Boston Transcript.

The Wrights got little more attention in the press for their first flight.

Most of our wise men, and our editorial writers, scoffed at flight as madness. The Wrights had to fly over and over again to get the Establishment's attention.

But I think their precursors deserve some notice.

They were a wonderful bunch of crazy guys.

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