Part 3: Did Whitehead fly? The first-in-flight dogfight continues

Those who believe they have proven that Gustave Whitehead flew before the Wright Brothers got off the ground are now in a war of words with the Smithsonian Institute.

The researcher whose findings led Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, an influential aviation publication, to deem that Whitehead’s flights in southwestern Connecticut preceded the Wright Brothers has responded to the Smithsonian’s rejection and criticism of both his research and the stance taken by Jane’s.

Meanwhile, the daughter of one of Whitehead’s earliest advocates is sending a letter to the Smithsonian asking that the museum’s contract stipulating the Wrights be recognized as first in flight be dissolved.

Whitehead was a German immigrant inventor who lived in the Bridgeport, Conn. area, and his supporters think he was first to fly a plane in August 1901. Orville and Wilbur Wright have mostly been credited with this feat in December 1903 on the North Carolina coast.

The decision by Jane’s

In the latest edition of Jane’s, Editor Paul Jackson cited several reasons for recognizing Whitehead based on new analysis of a photo uncovered by researcher John Brown, and the existence of the contract between the Wright family and the Smithsonian that forbids acknowledgment of a flight before Kitty Hawk if the museum wishes to keep the Wright Flyer.

Jane’s is an annual aviation publication that is considered an authority in its field. It is often called the bible of aviation.

Thomas Crouch, senior aeronautics curator for the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, steadfastly insists that the Wright Brothers were unquestionably first in an essay subtitled, “A Fresh Look at the Evidence,” which is posted on his blog.

Crouch called Brown’s research “biased and unsupported,” and wrote that Jackson “would have been well advised to take a look at the historical record of the case, and not make his decision based on a flawed website.”

Brown is an Australian researcher who works in the aviation industry in Germany.

The photo in question

The original version of the photo that forms the basis for Brown’s conclusion and the change in direction by Jane’s is in a collection curated by Crouch.

“When we spoke in your office last year, you told me you were the only historian ever to have been allowed to view the entire Hammer Collection. And on your Institute’s website, it clearly states the photo is not accessible to researchers,” Brown wrote in an open letter to Crouch.

Brown wrote that he thought “many” people expected that he and his forensic photography experts would be invited to view the photo in question, which Brown said shows Whitehead aloft in his No. 21.

“Instead, you recited — verbatim — Orville Wright’s denunciation of Whitehead which appeared 68 years ago in US Air Service Magazine, calling it a ‘fresh look’ and referring to my website as ‘flawed’,” Brown wrote. “What easier way would there have been for you to show how ‘flawed’ my conclusions are than to allow me to examine the photo?”

Smithsonian response

Crouch responded March 26 with his own open letter to Brown, saying that Brown would — and could — have had access to the photo.

“Had you bothered to ask to see the image in question, our archivists would have provided you with the original 14-inch by 16-inch print of that photo. The large print in poor condition is nothing more than an enlargement of the original, and no doubt lacks the clarity of the original and contains distortions,” Crouch wrote.

He added that Brown could have access to the best copy of the photo.

Crouch has said the photo cited by Brown is not clear enough, and that it likely shows Whitehead aloft in one of his gliders and not a powered craft.

“I might add parenthetically that the Wrights began taking crystal clear photos of their machines in the air from the time of their first trip to the Outer Banks in 1900 through the end of their initial experimental work in the fall of 1905,” Crouch wrote.

Questioning when photo was taken

Crouch, citing a 1902 letter from Whitehead to American Inventor, raises issue with Brown linking the image he insists shows Whitehead aloft in his aircraft No. 21 on Aug. 14, 1901. In that letter, Whitehead wrote that he intended to have photos taken of his No. 22 taken in spring of 1902.

Whitehead wrote that bad weather hindered photography in his letter. Crouch states that the Bridgeport Sunday Herald account does not mention bad weather on Aug. 14, 1901, so Brown cannot link the photo to the 1901 flight, but rather to a January 1902 flight.

“Of course, I don’t think that a 1902 photo of Number 22 exists either,” Crouch wrote.

Crouch also criticized the Aug. 18, 1901, newspaper account of Whitehead’s flight because of artwork depicting witches on broomsticks, placement of the story on Page 5, and “the only supposed witness” denying having been present, witnessing a flight and doubting the machine could get off the ground.

‘Nothing new to the old debate’

As for the widespread articles Brown lists in his research, Crouch wrote that most are digests of the Herald account.

“With regard to the flight claims, your website simply repeats the standard arguments and witnesses that have been advanced and refuted many times over the years,” Crouch wrote.

“With the exception of your failed attempt to produce a photo of a Whitehead powered machine in the air, you have added nothing new to the old debate,” Crouch added.

Impartial reviewer of research?

Because of the contract between the Wrights and the Smithsonian, Brown wrote, Crouch cannot impartially review his work.

“I consider you one of the world’s most qualified historians and I hope our friendship continues through and beyond these discussions," Brown wrote. "You’re certainly not [unqualified]. But on this matter, you are [disqualified]. Normally, a person in your position would recuse himself. You simply cannot render an impartial judgment.

"You saying the Wrights flew first is like Bill Gates saying Microsoft products are good — except that Bill is more credible because no contract actually requires him to say that," Brown wrote.

Crouch insisted he is impartial. “The contract is between the Smithsonian and the members of the Wright family: I can only repeat that if substantial evidence of a pre-Wright flight claim were to be produced, I hope I would have the courage to admit it,” Crouch wrote.

“Your regurgitation of old evidence is not a problem in that regard," Crouch added.

Letter demands contract be voided

A letter of demand that the contract be dissolved has been sent to the Smithsonian by Susan O’Dwyer Brinchman, whose father, Maj. William O’Dwyer, teamed with lawyer Stella Randolph to research the Whitehead story decades ago.

That contract was kept secret, and was not mentioned by the Smithsonian during this new debate until Crouch’s response to Brown’s open letter.

Its existence was uncovered in 1976 when the late Maj. O’Dwyer, helped by then-U.S. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut, filed a Freedom of Information request.

The document they received indicated that “in order to receive the Smithsonian’s top exhibit, the popularly named airplane ‘the Wright Flyer’ for $1, the Smithsonian and all its affiliates (about 200 at this writing) must credit the Wrights as first-to-fly, and if they don’t, the plane will be returned to the Wright heirs.”

Brinchman: Contract is ‘a roadblock’

“The Letter of Demand is not based on the question of who flew first, but that the contract interferes with Smithsonian’s objective evaluation of history, in direct opposition with its mission, values and strategic plan to discover history and share it,” according to a press release announcing Brinchman’s letter of demand.

“It is the opinion of many, including O’Dwyer, that the contract has been a roadblock to evaluating early aviation efforts and crediting strong contenders for first-to-fly, despite Smithsonian officials’ claims to the contrary,” the release announcing the letter stated.

According to Brown, “Jane’s-bashing won’t get you far. The history of aviation is more than a chronicle of Dayton community happenings. And your prestigious office deserves more than a knee-jerk, provincial response.

“With apologies to Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev,” he continued, “Mr. Crouch, tear up that contract!”

The Wright Brothers were from Dayton, Ohio.

John Kovach is an editorial director at Hersam Acorn Newspapers, publisher of the Shelton Herald. Part 1 of this online series appeared on March 23 and Part 2 on March 24.